Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Fun Home is a graphic novel/memoir that chronicles the life of the author and her nuanced relationship with her father, her sexuality, and her sense of self. We learn about Alison's unique family, her adolescence, her father's suicide (which is *almost* certainly a suicide, I know, #confusingmuch?), and struggle through the complex emotions this induces in Alison as she tries to make sense of them. It is clear that her tale is not a story with a fixed outcome, a ribbon that can be tied neatly into a clean bow, but rather a tangled, mysterious, and often painful exploration of family, relationships, intimacy, and identity.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

To be honest, I did not love this book. I won't go so far as to say that I hated it (I know Grandma doesn't like that word), but it definitely rubbed me the wrong way in some parts. That said, now that I've had a few weeks to think on it, I see some glimmers of beauty in it, and recognize why it was acclaimed by others. I don't know whether to recommend it to you or not (not knowing you personally, dear reader, I wouldn't want to PreSUme), but it is certainly an interesting read, and one that doesn't take long, being a graphic novel and all (NB: graphic as in comic - minds out of the gutter, now).

My sister Diana read it a second time as a readalong, so I may share her thoughts (as well as her thoughts on HNH (ahem, slightly belated #busymedschoollife)) at a later time, should she care to share them with all of you. Here's what struck me as I read it:

And the rowers keep on rowing, showing no signs that they are slowing...
I haven't read many graphic novels (I think it might be limited to Persepolis, American Born Chinese, and this) so I felt like I might have been missing something important about how you're supposed to read one. I am, as you may imagine, a rather fast reader by now, and ripped through this in about 3 hours. I wondered when I finished whether I had paid enough attention to the images and given them their due merit, but I'm not sure how to read differently. I guess it's sort of like thinking about how you drive, or ride a bike, or play the cello - how do you all of a sudden learn how to do it in a new way, when your body has become used to the rhythm of perpetual motion? I remember how hard it was to even attempt learning a new bow holding technique for the cello after roughly ten years, and that's just the bow! (you see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet!) Anyway, I was just marinating on this, and didn't really come up with any clear answers. I think there's something to be said for graphic novel authors not just creating the words, but the images, though in some ways I wasn't sure that the comic was the best medium for this tale. Curious to hear others' thoughts if anyone else has read this, or other graphic novels. I thought the quote on the right was very à propos.

Likenesses in droves...

It is not uncommon for a reader to identify with the narrator; in fact, I think these points of identification are generally what forge the deepest connections between book and reader. This book, however, seemed to contain a sort of freakish amount of these commonalities for me. Here are a few:
  • While our relationships are not at all the same, there was a great deal that rang true in her descriptions of her father, and how he behaved around his family. These were eerily familiar: 
    • "Dad considered us free labor, extensions of his own body, like precision robot arms." I still remember holding up drywall to the ceiling as a little girl, and wishing that my arms were thicker and stronger and belonged to a boy.
    • "I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture."
    • Her parents are both teachers, Dad teaches English.
    • Importance of Being Earnest - her mom plays Lady Bracknell in a local production, and there's quite a bit of family line practicing and quoting. My sisters and I tried to stage a dramatic performance of this when we were younger, and it's one of my mother's favorites.  
    • On her father's attitude toward the family: "He liked the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children."
    • Her parents (for different reasons than mine) had a marriage lacking in intimacy, which ended in divorce. 
    • Her 'urbane' father opts to live in a provincial hamlet, keeping his sphere of travel quite contained.
    • Her dad is an avid gardener, and they even mention a crabapple tree. It used to be my job (with my sisters) to pick up the crabapples from the back yard so my dad could feed them to the deer. 
    • Her dad's creepy Camus existentialism/absurdity of death fixation - let's just say The Stranger was more like Stranger Danger for little ole' moi. Where was my Kimmy Schmidt Stranger Danger Ranger?
    • Their house is filled to the brim with books.
    • The family grows up in good ole' PA, the Keystone State. 
  • None of these things on their own seem that strange (after all, loads of people must have crabapple trees in their yards), but it felt like a strikingly large collection after I wrote them all down.
Ne touchez pas mon Proust! [in other words, Hands off my Marcel!]
In case you are new to reading my blobbety blob, I'll let you in on a little secret: there are a few things I can't stand in life:

(a) the sound of couples making out in public [sorry! it's true! it's just so squishy and gross!]
(2) violence [of any kind, but particularly torture] and
(d) literary criticism.

I recognize the irony of this, considering I majored in Comparative Literature at Haverford, but part of why I started this blog was to reclaim my experience of books, and to rebuild those intimate, personal sparks that are shared only between reader and author, and that are so often bastardized and influenced by what other people tell you to think about a book, or think you should know before you read one. Sometimes this can be a challenge (looking at you, Ulysses) and sometimes this means I will miss things (like, for instance, the entire anti-communist subtext of Animal Farm) but what it does for me is provides a momentary union with the text, stripped of societal barriers or artificially constructed boundaries of understanding. Alison seems to have been won over by literary criticism, and spends a great deal of her novel analyzing and providing 'agreed-upon truths' about other books, most specifically Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. As I am one of the probably thousand or so people in the world who has actually read the complete Proust, I was annoyed at her presumptive explanations of what Proust meant, especially since Proust died a little over halfway through publishing his magnum opus. We can't know what Proust was thinking or intending unless we ask him, so unless you are also a very powerful medium, Alison, maybe take it down a notch. K? #kBYYYee! Also, she used two of my least favorite words (which I think were actually designed by sneaky linguists to make intelligent people feel stupid)epistemology and tautology, so Nope. step off, now. I'll take my personal Proustian feelings and keep them in a box over here, s'il vous plaît.

Alison is a rock, Alison is an i-i-i-i-sland...
Okay, true confessions time: sometimes I have a hard time connecting with people who either don't have siblings, or people who aren't close to their siblings. It just feels hinky to me, like they must have done something wrong or not drunk enough of their 'I will heart my siblings' potion as a child. I recognize that this sounds wildly unfair, but hey! It is what it is. I thought it was super weird that Alison had not one, but two brothers, who seemed to factor as nonentities in her memoir. She later explains, "Our family was like an artists' colony. We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our separate pursuits." That made me feel...sad. I value creativity and all, but to me, family is all on top of one another, piled up in this big messy heap, and sometimes uncomfortably stuck together and painfully intimate. I think the difference in the sense of family identity was particularly pronounced as I was coming out of Irvingland in HNH, where the Berry family swings into the too-closely-connected/borderline codependent zone. If given the option of the two, I'll take the latter.

We're coming Out. We want the world to know, got to let it show...

So, I was totally going to link to what I think was a 'This American Life' segment that also dealt with a child coming out and their parent coming out back to them unexpectedly, but of course now I can't find it, so oh well. C'est la vie. (La vie! ahGHAHGAHGAahgahgagh. get it?) Anyway, when Alison decides to come out to her parents, she's all ready for it to be this big surprise and shock and then bAWham guess what? Her mom is like, OH PS your dad is probs gay. And there have been some questionable occurrences between him and young men. Can you say #thunderstolen?

I'm creeped out that you're not more creeped out, girl...
One of the things that bugged me about this book was the fact that Alison seemed somewhat perturbed, but not overly bothered by the allegations of assault or whatnot against her father. Maybe I was reading it wrong, but I don't think I was. And if that's the case, closeted gay or not, NOT OK. And hard for me to identify with her when she didn't seem all that weirded.

1-2-3-, OCD
OK, so I am not a psychiatrist, and I support everyone who struggles with mental illness, but I was a little confused about how the main character seemed to develop an intense OCD problem for a brief period, but then it wasn't really mentioned at all after that period of time. Maybe this is a thing, and I am just not lucky enough for it to be true for me and my version of OCD, but I kind of thought OCD was a for life kind of deal. So maybe she just glossed over it but she still lives with it, or maybe (and this is a heavily emphasized maybe, because again, I'm no expert) it was, in fact, something else? It just felt a little strange to me.

Merp - gaydar fail - not EVERYTHING is about latent homosexuality
I know I grew up under a rock and all (well, more like under a PA dutch hex sign and some buggies) but excuse me if I don't feel like everything comes back to and flows in and out of gayness. Alison drew a lot of gay themes from just about everything, from Proust, to Wilde, to Fitzgerald, to Salinger, to Hemingway, and while I am all about that LGBT love, I felt like her emphasis on the latent gay themes kind of detracted from the larger depth and brilliance that is each of those authors and their great works. I assume that just as I would not want to be identified only as a woman, or only as white, or only as straight, those authors would want themselves, and their works, to be about all of their themes and pieces of identity, not just their gayness or gay themes. I really don't want to seem anti-gay here, because I'm not, and I get that I probably missed (and still miss) a lot of nuance, but I like to think that I try not to miss the forest for the trees.

And all. That. J--aa--zzzzz...
This book felt very unresolved. I'm talking an "'is that really the end? is it over?' kind of note that clinches a jazz piece" unresolved. Which I found unsettling because (a) I like resolution (so sue me!) and (b) the character felt very old to still feel so unresolved about her father's death. It made me wonder if she would ever get that resolution, and what it would feel like to spend her whole life wondering in this land of suspended animation. But maybe (here we go, big thought, guys!) that is how I was SUPPOSED to feel. And if so, ick. [Sorry! like I said, I like a consonant tonic.]

As we have already established, there were many big words in this book, some of which are on my NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO list. Here are two that I learned (and of which I approve):

monomaniacal - fanatical, or obsessed with one cause or idea to the exclusion of other concerns

legerdemain - deception; trickery; sleight of hand [from the French for 'light of hand']

Well, I don't think this was my strongest blob entry, but then again, I think exactly zero people read my last post, so maybe it Doesn't Even Matter! I will not waste time worrying about it. ;) I'm off to Go Shout it on the Hilltop. Happy New Year! kbYEEEeeeeeeee

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