Multiplicity of Narratives in the “Fun Home”

In “Fun Home,” Anne Bechdel utilizes the medium of the graphic novel to explore simultaneous multiple narratives through the combination of text and image. In many of these passages Bechdel draws on classical tropes and literature to overlay academic theory on the narrative events of Bechdel’s life. The medium of the graphic novel extends literary modes of story telling with the addition of a visual image and allows Bechdel to complicate her story through multiple narratives. For example, Bechdel commonly uses a dissonance between the narrative captured in the text and the events of the visual and spoken dialogue below. On page 12 and 214, the juxtaposition between the caption and the drawn narrative is captured through a dissonance of the classical tropes in the text and the realistic narrative depiction of Bechdel’s life in the visuals. The textual classical imagery can be viewed as a metaphor for the real life depiction of the visuals.

For example on page 12, Bechdel writes “Indeed, the result of that scheme–have-bull, half-man monster–inspired Daedalus’s greatest creation yet. He hid the Minotaur in the labyrinth-a maze of passages and rooms opening endlessly into one another…and from which, as stray youths and maidens discovered to their peril…escape was impossible. Then there are those famous wings, when Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?” (12). This passage describes a classical illusion to Daedalus, responsible for placing the Minotaur on Crete and the death of his son when the wax on Icarus’s wings melted near the sun. These illusions both ground Bechdel’s father as a father figure like Daedalus, but also identify him with schemes that are often harmful for children. During this verbal narration and caption of classical illusion, Bechdel tells a narrative through images of Bechdel getting in trouble for opening a stopper of alcohol. In the resulting frames, Bechdel attempts to “find a way out” of her house just like the classical children try to find their way out of the maze. She then walks next to dead cornfields until she comes back home in a “failure” of escape just as Daedalus is upset over the “design failure” of the wings. We also see Bechdel questioning whether her father cares about her, whether Daedalus was “really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea.” In this passage of the graphic novel, the multiplicity of the form allows Bechdel to tell multiple narratives, both classical and autobiographical, which ties together academic thought and home-life in a metaphorical relationship.

We see a similar use of classical imagery being overlaid with another layer of narration of Bechdel’s life on 214 as she depicts a sexual act through a classical lens. In this passage, Bechdel uses Odysseus as her main classical figure, writing, “Veering toward Scylla seemed much the safer route and after navigating the passage, I soon washed up, a bit stunned, on a new shore.  Like Odysseus on the island of the cyclops, I found myself facing a ‘Being of colossal strength and ferocity, to whom the law of man and god meant nothing.’ In true heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared. Yet while Odysseus schemed desperately to escape Polyphemus’s cave, I found that I was quite content to stay here forever.” In this passage the visual narrative goes deeper than this ‘higher’ level of language rich with classical references. The actual images show Bechdel about to give oral sex to her girlfriend. With the bottom left picture showing her contemplating this action, the “thing I feared” it moves to her closing her eyes and enjoying the activity as she is now “content to stay here forever.” With oral sex depicted through classical images, the act of gay sex assumes an academic register. These multiple registers of narrative accentuates the multiplicitous nature of the graphic novel and the hints of humor, irony, metaphor, that can be observed through the difference between textual and visual narrative.

The dissonance between visual images and written ones is also utilized to provide an unspoken backstory in the novel. On page 139, Bechdel described her process of reading Dr. Spock in order to understand her mental disorder. She says, “I continued reading, searching for something more concrete.” The irony in this scene is that Bechdel narrates a very concrete basis for her mental problems through the visual medium below her text. In this second narrative her parents are having a violent argument, representing what is assumed to be one of many childhood memories of a broken marriage. This background activity in many ways explains Bechdel’s mental trauma better than Doctor Spock, creating a level of irony as Bechdel is in fact looking in the wrong place, down at her book instead of up at her parents argument to pinpoint her mental problems. The words of Doctor Spock are inadequate to explain her problems much because his book is in a written medium and therefore is plagued by epistemological questions. Instead the visual representations appear to be closer to her life.

These examples of narrative complication with multiplicitous media is also incorporated to Bechdel’s own epistemological problems. In her childhood journals, it seems that words are not enough to properly describe her life. Instead she resorts first to write the words “I think” after every noun, and then to write over each noun with a “curvy circumflex” (142). This epistemological problem of “language failure” draws Bechdel to another medium that has the dual communicative element of the above passages. She says that “The best thing about the wind in the willows map was its mystical bridging of the symbolic and the real, of the label and the thing itself. It was a chart, but also a vivid, almost animated picture” (147). Here, a visual map is able to catch more of the “real” than her diary was of describing her inner feelings. Indeed, to Bechdel, the dual narrative quality of the graphic novel allows her to explore more fully her autobiographical life than the  written word allowed her to do in her youth.

-Nora

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