I’ve just finished reading Alison Bechdel‘s graphic novel/non-fiction text, Fun Home. Bechdel is already kind of famous for her Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. Fun Home promises to make her one of the most important GLBT writers working today. It is an amazing book. I urge anyone who enjoys reading to rush out and get it.

Fun Home cover Fun Home is, on one level, Bechdel’s effort to come to terms with her father, a high school English teacher/funeral home director in small town Pennsylvania who also restores old homes to museum-like quality on the side. Already strained, their relationship is made more complicated by the fact that Alison’s father is hiding a substantial secret, one that she only discovers after leaving home for college. Part homage to her father, part indictment of him, Fun Home is both the particular story of these two characters’ relationship and a universal story of the constant renegotiation of the parent-child relationship as the child grows into adulthood.

There are many things that recommend this book. I should first admit that this is the first graphic novel (or autobiography or memoir — whatever the correct genre is) that I’ve read. My assumptions about graphic novels have all been upended by this book. I assumed they were rather basic and intellectually unengaging. If Fun Home is any indication, these assumptions are clearly wrong.

Bechdel uses the graphic elements of her medium to create a rich and intellectually engaging text in which words and images play off of one another. Early in the work an image includes a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that at first glance appears to be just a random book lying next to a character. As we continue reading, however, we realize that this image is actually an inter-text, a literary reference that guides the reader’s expectations of Bechdel’s story. This is just one of the many ways that she uses the graphic medium successfully to add to the reader’s engagement with her text.

And Anna Karenina is just one of many literary references that Bechdel alludes to in this work. Others include Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, to name just a few. Her autobiographical non-fiction is also seeped in past examples of the genre. She uses these past models to try to make sense of her own life and relationships, but these models don’t always help her, thus her use of this new medium, the graphic memoir.

I also really like the way in which Bechdel sets the historical scene for the events of her work. Her illustration of Richard Nixon is dead on, and the setting of the 1976 Bicentennial rings a bell with me — I was six years old at the time and kind of remember seeing on t.v. the ships she describes. Her reference to Palmolive, which softens hands as you do the dishes, is also great. I think it’s these elements that give her book a universal quality without ever distracting from its specific characters and relationships.

I’m a little surprised that I found this book so moving. It is both a tribute to her father and an indictment of him, just what I feel about my parents — I love them and all that, but there are times you can’t help but indict some of the things they did or didn’t do to and with you as a kid. Bechdel’s ability to see her father as a human being — indeed Fun Home‘s story is the process by which she comes to see him as a human being — complete with strengths and faults is what makes this such a great book.

Fun Home is a beautifully lyrical and erudite text. I highly recommend it.