St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN
When I was in the seventh grade, I had two English classes. One class was regular English 7, and the other was called READ 180. They didn’t like to refer to that class as remedial English, but that’s what it was because of standardized test scores. In this second English class, we would mainly do practice tests to prepare for the standardized testing season, individual reading, or study hall. My teacher walked around quiet reading time and stopped at my desk, “What are you reading” she asked me. I turned to look up at her, “Yotsuba,” I said, “It’s Anime…” I had never in my life seen a more disgusted face from one of my teachers. She handed my book back to me and said, very loudly, “Okay, well, next time you better bring a real book. I want to see you reading real books in this class, or I’m going to give you a lunch-detention.” I didn’t understand.
Reading Fun Home, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, makes me think about this idea of what constitutes a book being “real” and what does not. The traditional writing versus non-traditional writing comparison, in this case played out in a graphic novel, echoes in the background when I pick up Bechdel’s work. In Fun Home, in terms of it being an autobiography in a graphic novel style, Bechdel pushes back on this conversation. Bechdel’s work debunks what is “a real book” through the different literary devices she uses skillfully in her work. Bechdel makes us think about how we not only view traditional and non-traditional writing, but makes us look at how we view women’s writing, especially autobiographies. Through this graphic memoir, we can see all the boxes being checked. Bechdel’s work is on the same playing field as traditional literature because there are so many literary devices that she skillfully uses to tell her story, namely allegory, foreshadowing, simile, and metaphor.
Bechdel opens the memoir with an allegory of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus to represent her relationship with her father. She also draws parallels between Bruce Bechdel’s failure to accept himself and the suppression of his sexuality, to Icarus’s hubris. She writes, “Considering the fate of Icarus after he flouted his father’s advice and flew so close to the sun his wings melted, perhaps some dark humor is intended. In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky” (Bechdel 4). It’s not until she revisits this allegory that she makes the full comparison of Bruce and Icarus at the end of the memoir. Bechdel also uses this allegory to foreshadow her father’s self-destructive behavior throughout her upbringing and the rest of the memoir.
Bechdel describes her father’s coldness to his needs or feelings using the simile of robot arms writing that he only values them if they are of use to him. She shows this treatment through a scene of her and her siblings are helping Bruce fix things around the house. Bechdel recounts this moment narrating, “…and of course, my brothers and I were free labor. Dad considered us extensions of his own body, like precision robot arms” (13). She creates the image and the narrative that her father only saw them as props or objects that he could control, especially when he needed to exhibit control. Bechdel uses simile again when she recalls the time when she saw a woman dressed in men’s clothing for the first time when she was young. In this moment, Alison and her father realized that the woman is the image of who she wants to be. By comparing herself to a traveler, Bechdel implies that she is more open to exploring her identity than her father, who is simultaneously closeted and closed off.
Bechdel uses the summer storm as a metaphor for the whirlwind that follows Bruce and the secrets he hides from his family. The storm metaphor also means that despite the struggles that she and her family face, they still manage to avoid complete destruction most likely because they were well versed in how to weather a storm. Bechdel also uses the creek from the Beech Creek as a metaphor for her father’s homosexuality, which he often tries to hide behind his different passions and need to appear perfect all the time. She writes that Beech creek appeared “crystal clear,” but only because of pollution from the adjacent strip mines (128). By using these metaphors she showcases two sides of her father Bruce: the storm being his inner turmoil because of his many secrets surrounding his closeted homosexuality and Beech creek being the image he tries to uphold in public.
When I read Fun Home, it brings me back to that time in my life where I not only loved reading, but I loved graphic novels, anime, and comic books. As a senior in college I finally took the time to read graphic novels and traditional novels recreationally. Yes, the words,“real books” still echo in the back of my mind, except this time it is for a different reason. Through the skillful use of literary devices in her work, Bechdel makes us think about how we compare traditional and non-traditional writing, as well as demands that we acknowledge that they are all real books.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.