With a Tony Award for the Best Musical of the year, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home has officially travelled far from its graphic novel roots. Based on Bechdel's own life, the book charts her growing up in small-town Pennsylvania and her subsequent realisation of her homosexuality. That itself would be material enough for a memoir but what makes Fun Home special is the unique circumstance of Bechdel's household. The title is an ironic play on the "funeral home" her father worked at part time. He was a closeted gay man who had multiple relationships with younger men during his lifetime and killed himself (so Bechdel believes) by walking in front of a passing truck.
If this sounds grim, it is, but in Bechdel's hands, the story does not drench in grief. Rather it turns into a universally recognisable tale of family dynamics and how even the most strained circumstances can come wrapped in sublime lessons. I read the book at a personally difficult time. It was 2011. I was in B-school, away from home for the first time, and grappling with the emotional void I strongly felt. People around me - men and women younger than me - were in relationships, while my still closeted self had until then not looked beyond the comforts of my immediate family.
I read Fun Home at a time when I had decided to come out but had not yet made the transition completely. I had gone to Delhi for a two-month internship between the first and second years of MBA, and had promised myself that I would lose my virginity in that period. I did, and when I returned to B-school, I went ahead and got myself a nose ring for good measure. It was as if I had come in touch with a new, fright-less self. I was ready to be out, and ready to soak in all the culture about coming out without approaching it, as I had so far done, with tragedy or longing. My situation now made me a proponent, not a victim.
And thus it was that I came to Fun Home. Bechdel's brilliant visuals were suitably enhanced by the directness of her narrative voice. Her mother, Helen, was distant and cold, and her lack of kindness was inexplicable to the young Alison who discovered the truth about the nature of her parents' relationship years later. I remember one particular scene that captures the fraught relationship between mother and daughter. Helen was a culturally aware woman (I say "was" because she is dead) who worked at the theatre and maintained a home that dipped effortlessly into classical music. In one scene, Alison asks her something about the composer Chopin, pronouncing the name as it is spelt. Helen corrects her, without a hint of mercy: "SHOW-PAN", and Bechdel draws the speech bubble in bold, angry strokes.
But the main story is about Alison's relationship with her father, Bruce, whom she comes to see as a kindred figure given his homosexuality. Throughout the memoir, there are instances of broken hope, as Bruce lives a secret life away from the eyes of the family. He shares no real connection with his wife and his relationship with his daughter and two sons is marked by the briefest moments of kindness in a sea of indifference. But Bechdel does not make him out to be a villain. When she learns of his truth, she sees how he is a mirror image of herself, and is able to, therefore, both know him and forgive him.
In one of the final panels in the book, after he has died, Bechdel draws herself and her father as having returned to her childhood, she on the verge of diving into a pool in which he stands ready to catch her. The text reads: "He was there to catch me when I leapt," and the parallels with their lives are unmistakable. By never truly coming out and going to his grave as a closeted man, Bruce gave his daughter the reason and courage to live her true, authentic self.
I finished the book on a lazy July morning in B-school, and I was so affected by its raw, blood-tinged beauty that I immediately shot off an email to Bechdel. I never heard from her but I was satisfied in the knowledge that I had made a connection, however intangible, with a writer whose own life had been defined, and saved, by such unspoken, intangible connections. Her story was imperfect, as nearly every story worth telling is, but its inherent strength had given me hope. Hope for a better tomorrow, for a tomorrow that would bring wisdom and happiness.