Even though it had been highly recommended to me repeatedly, I didn’t get around to reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home until after I saw the musical at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It’s rare that I retain enough interest in something to read the book after having seen the movie or the play, but I knew I would this time. The musical, which grabbed five Tonys, was such a fresh, original take on memoir, with subject matter so foreign to the Broadway stage, that I knew I would enjoy, at the very least, mulling over the differences between book and play.
I was especially eager to dig into the book after I read a fantastic interview with Lisa Kron by Laurie Winer in the LA Review of Books. Kron was the playwright for Fun Home and I was really intrigued when she claimed that about 75% of the play doesn’t appear in the memoir (what?!) and that the book didn’t contain any scenes:
“There are no scenes in the book. There are no scenes! There is no dramatic action, there are no sustained scenes. There aren’t even really characters. There’s Alison at this age, at this age, and at this age. There are fragment[s] of scenes in different locations.”
I just couldn’t fathom what that meant, and I must, say, after having read the memoir, I’m still not sure what she’s talking about. Either her notion of what qualifies as a “scene” or a “character” completely diverges from mine, or (and this possibility entrances me) her play so deeply informed my reading of the memoir, that I was unable to recognize the lack of scenes or character. Had Kron baked into my mind the material I needed to bridge the gaps between plot fragments and character revelations? It seems like I would need a time machine to know (or a device like the one in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)
But then I remembered Scott McCloud’s brilliant graphic book, Understanding Comics.
McCloud proposes a taxonomy for categorizing frame-to-frame transitions in comics:
McCloud discovers that a wide array of mainstream American comics uses a very similar proportion of these transitions: 65% action-to-action, 20% subject-to-subject and 15% scene-to-scene. Kron’s comment made me wonder whether she thought that Bechdel’s book didn’t have sustained scenes because it is not primarily composed of moment-to-moment or action-to-action transitions. I suspect that Bechdel uses a much higher proportion of scene-to-scene transitions, as she shifts backwards and forwards in time, conceptually connecting memories more through juxtaposition than through linear temporal sequences. McCloud notes that Art Spiegelman uses scene-to-scene transitions about 70% of the time in Maus, a landmark graphic novel in which Spiegelman also explores the life of his father, a Holocaust survivor. (For anyone who has extra time on your hands, please do the count in Fun Home and let me know your result…)
As you might expect, the memoir included countless details that never found their way into the musical – some of which, I believe, weakened the conclusion that Bechdel’s father committed suicide. Another thing that surprised me was the starring role that literature, literary analysis and the quiet act of silent reading played in the book. Bechdel doesn’t just reference Joyce, James, Wilde, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Camus, she interrogates them for anything they might help reveal about her father and his apparent suicide. It’s also in books that she explores her own homosexuality, but those iconic books by Hall, Nin, Forster and Woolf are not the subjects of her intense analysis – instead, they appear as images, stacked meaningfully for anyone familiar with the queer canon.
Perhaps most moving to me were the frequent illustrations of people reading, caught up in their own worlds – obviously, not the kind of material that would make it into the musical, but it revealed the often unacknowledged dark side of the readerly life – its ability to isolate us from others. For the young children in the Bechdel family, their parents’ commitment to the life of the mind was a clear sign of their misery and their longing to escape the idealized domestic scene they had carefully co-created.
Bechdel is an accomplished illustrator and she takes full advantage of her medium in order to tell aspects of the story that would have been harder to communicate in text only. One of these elements that I loved — that wasn’t adopted for the play — were the maps that she draws to help flesh out a kind of psychic geography for her family, while illustrating her father’s surprising provincialism.
Maybe the greatest pleasure of my Fun Home journey is experiencing (and I use the word advisedly) the transformation of biographical elements and real-world artifacts – diaries, photos, passports, letters – into heartbreaking illustrations, and then watching them morph once again into the attention-commanding material of live theater – sets, actors, voices, movement, music. How often do we get to go on journeys like that? They’re rare, my friends, and you should grab a ticket whenever you get the chance.