Fun Home as transgressive lit?

Tim Dean’s work, “The erotics of transgression” laments the exhaustion of the category of transgression. He writes, “The vocabulary of transgression has permeated academic discourse to such an extent – influencing not just lesbian, gay and queer studies but the humanities and social sciences more broadly – that much of its original force has been blunted.” Reflecting on transgression as both an idea and a philosophical concept, Dean explores the writings of Bataille and Foucault, and attempts to reclaim transgression as a useful category of analysis (66). 

Dean is particularly interested in the notion of the erotic. If we are to take Tim Dean at his word, “it is eroticism (rather than sexuality or sexual identity) that remains inextricable from transgression,” then he invites us to reflect on the extent to which Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home constitutes transgressive literature (69).

Alison Bechdel’s perfectly titled Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, invites the reader to begin dissecting at the very cover. It is unclear whether Bechdel is underscoring the fact that her story is both tragic and a comic strip, if she is implying that the irony of her story is both tragic and comedic, or both.

What then constitutes the transgressive elements of Bechdel’s work? As Dean established above, non-normative sexualities have ceased to function in discourse on transgression. The boundaries that once demarcated acceptable and permissible sexualities, for the most part, have retreated. The sexuality of father and daughter alike, instead, provide the context for an ironic tale about family, identity, art, and communication.

One of the more poignant aspects of the story is the way the father and daughter communicate through the medium of literature, much of which has been called transgressive. The literary metaphors they utilize provide a kind of grounding for their own understanding of who they are. It provides a language for sentiments that are, in some ways, unspeakable. At times, father and daughter lack the ability to communicate in real life terms; instead, they utilize the common language of a shared literary canon. 

The real potential for locating transgression within this tale is situated within the family. There are shared cultural ideas about what a family is supposed to be. Husbands and wives are to behave in a certain way toward one another, as are parents and children. Ideally, the family functions as a unified and supportive socio-economic unit, though in reality, families often function as sites of tension and conflict. The Bechdels are certainly a family that operates despite conflicts of interest, though I would argue that there is still a great deal of love, support, and care within the family. But would this count as transgression or are the Bechdel’s simply dysfunctional? I would claim the later.

The father’s suicide is arguably the most problematic and the only place where we are able to locate a transgressive act. The choice of exit from one’s life is a limit that the living often cannot accept. But this begs the question, for whom is the father’s suicide transgressive? To the daughter/author or the reader? The author harbors no anger or resentment at her father’s choice. The ambiguity of his suicide, the lack of a suicide note, the fleetingness of all of it, leaves it open-ended, like a conversation that is still taking place and is playing itself out on the pages before us. The memoir provides a medium for the author to come to terms with her father and her own identity, to think about the role of the father in her own life, and to reflect on her father’s life choices that seem so very different from her own. Even after his suicide, she suggests that the legacy of his role in her life permitted him a kind of enduring presence long after his death. In concluding, she writes, “He did hurl into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). Bechdel articulates here that her father’s life choices and suicide were not beyond the bounds of her limits, leaving the readers to grapple with our own sense of limits and transgression.

Lastly, the graphic novel format that Bechdel utilizes is indispensible to her story and tone. It provides the novel and her wit with a type of light-heartedness that in no way takes away from the personal and serious story she is narrating. It is a genius articulation, communicating her story and personality so clearly to the audience, and such a pleasure to read. The form lends itself well to a story that could be interpreted critically and coldly, but is afforded a kind of lightness through the visual representations of the stories that are being narrated.

– Madame Oshey

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