Although Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun House documents the author’s (and her father’s) various transgressions, what I found most transgressive involved the interaction between genre and content. Bechdel’s transgression is two-fold. She uses the graphic novel as a way to deal with darker topics like death, suicide, and repressed sexuality, but even more compelling, she uses it as a space for memoir. Furthermore, she transgresses the memoir aspect of her novel by relentlessly intertwining reality with the literary. By subverting content traditions, Bechdel mirrors both the abnormal nature of her childhood and reveals the inherent difficulties in constructing a life narrative.
Usually when I think of a graphic novel I don’t expect reality. There are many graphic novels that deal with darker topics, but even then, the comic strip resemblance and the cutely drawn pictures belie the darker underbelly of these works. A great example of this is on page 137. The picture is of Bechdel sweetly kissing her teddy bears, but once the words are read, we realize that it’s a depiction of her OCD. This mirrors Bechdel’s childhood. In many instances in the present Bechdel relives and rethinks instances of her past where what seemed innocent was in fact a representation of something much darker. Her babysitter becomes one of her dad’s lovers. Trips her family took in the past become moments when she could have realized her dad’s transgressions. Alison Bechdel isn’t the first writer to bring darkness to the graphic novel; so instead, it’s the way that she uses it as a space to talk about the past that holds my attention. The graphic novel is a form associated with fantasy and fictions. Drawing up new worlds both in the practice and in the writing. The form allows Bechdel to draw up a new world in her own life narrative. By bringing memoir and the graphic novel together, Bechdel is able to leverage the possibilities of the graphic novel to tell a story that better represents her life narrative. The graphic novel allows Bechdel to jump back and forth through time, escaping the linearity that would keep the reader from truly understanding the story that she’s trying to tell. We start at her childhood, experience her father’s suicide, and then move back and forth between childhood and college years all the while being aware that the story is a retrospective (as in the writing is happening in a different temporal space than the actions of the narrative). By transgressing the traditional content of the graphic novel, Bechdel creates a new space that increases understanding for herself and her readers.
Bechdel also intertwines reality and the literary. She constantly views her life through literature or by using the life narratives of great literary figures. Bechdel does this so frequently, that there are moments where the literary and reality seem to be inseparable. In fact, there were a few moments where I had to reread to make sure that I understand the differences between the literary reference and the actual event. On the last page of the graphic novel, the interaction between the literary and reality is used to represent her father’s suicide. Bechdel compares her father to Icarus, saying “he did hurtle into the sea of course” with a depiction of the truck that killed him. This intermingling of the fiction, life narrative, and reality allow Bechdel to express the difficulties of creating a life narrative. She talks about this explicitly when she remembers her diary writing. At first, she was obsessed with the truth. Everything written in her diary was reality. As time passed, however, her emotions began to get in the way of reality. Moments took on metaphors. She began to omit certain events. Her memory could not hold on strongly enough to overcome her shame. When you look back at your life, you construct a narrative that is both reality and fiction. Pretending to play “plane” on Bechdel’s father becomes a memory associated with his suicide. Looking at GQ magazine becomes a precursor for her sexuality. This is what makes constructing a life narrative so difficult; you cannot separate fiction from reality. Perhaps in this way Bechdel isn’t subverting the graphic novel form at all. Maybe she is accepting that her memoir is fantasy.