Noah speaks out:
Fun Home more or less defines middle-brow, I think, at least for me. I found it really boring and predictable — earnest anecdote, earnest anecdote, moment of clarity, moment of ambivalent trasncendence, earnest anecdote…I felt like she might as well have just cut and pasted the thing from random scenes from This American Life. Yeah, there were literary references, but every time she dropped one I heard the thud. And her art does nothing for me.
Ouch! This might hurt even worse if I had ever listened to This American Life. Did David Sedaris use to do broadcasts on that show? I really liked Naked, but the book doesn’t remind me much of Fun Home.
I’ve read Bechdel’s book a few times and admire it. I think it’s intelligent and largely honest, and because of it I learned about life on the inside of a very strange and painful family situation. Making sense of a person’s life always appeals to me. I can’t really defend the art — the last decade of Dykes to Watch Out For is much better — and I can’t defend a lot of the prose. Bechdel drifts into the sort of heavy-footed word tread that causes me to make snide references to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In fact, considering how carefully worked the book is, with its tight layouts and its apportioning of themes into enigmatic, puzzle-palace chapter-essays, it’s a comedown to reflect on how much of Fun Home’s aesthetic impact comes from simple atmospherics: the gray-green wash, the sense of remove created by having present-day captions hanging over silent scenes from the past, the mystery that comes from treating your subject as mysterious and not as a topic to be laid out and explained.
If I sat down with Alison Bechdel and spent eight hours talking about her dad and her upbringing, I might get just as much or more than I did from reading her book. But I got plenty from reading Fun Home, and I liked the book’s atmospherics. (This response, or pair of responses, may be typically middlebrow: Just give me the gist of it, but I don’t mind that other stuff as long as it’s fun.)
Bechdel strikes me as a one-armed tennis player who manages to have a good win-loss record. Very few people can have leveraged such modest creative ability into such decent results. But she did it. She’s intelligent and she looks at life from a distance that I find interesting.
I mentioned that Fun Home is not entirely honest. Out of all the problems in her father’s life, she downpedaled one: he appears to have been extremely fragile and he shaped his life to avoid risk. A couple of dots appear, but they’re not connected. She explains his return to his little hometown as the result of his rootedness in the landscape. I don’t buy it. I believe the real explanation is a nervous breakdown suffered while at graduate school. He loved books and in those days dropping out of grad school meant going into the army. Yet he dropped out. Why? My guess would be that he couldn’t hack the idea of measuring up or not measuring up at what he really loved — the same reason he didn’t move into the swim of gay life in a big city. Just a guess, of course, but as long as Bechdel leaves that clue hanging out there — the passing mention of her dad’s quitting the grad program — I’m going to throw my guesses into the mix.
In person I might be able to say, “Oh, come on, Alison” and get to the bottom of things. But it’s still fine by me to have the book version of her story.