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Reading lessons in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Alison Bechdel's award-winning graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, widely recognized for its literary sophistication, was declared one of the best books published in 2006 by The New York Times and Time magazine. (1) Much of the critical analysis of the book has focused on Bechdel's treatment of her intellectual and sexual development and her relationship with her father--themes familiar in the memoir genre. What is unusual in Bechdel's treatment of these themes is that she invariably filters them through her adventures in reading; as Hilary Chute notes in her definitive analysis of Bechdel's work, "Reading is the site where almost everything happens in Fun Home" (2010, 184). The family home is a repository of literary, historical and aesthetic books, of dictionaries, private letters and diaries, of newspapers, catalogues, official documents, maps and family photographs--texts and images that are read and read into by the narrator.

Critics have explored insightfully the role played by literature in shaping Bechdel's parents' identities, desires and expectations as well as her own, but for the most part those analyses assume a single mode of reading. This essay will lay out how, in the course of her development, Alison falls under the influence of her father, her teachers and her lovers, each promoting a different mode of reading: reading for identification, reading for parallels and symbolic meanings, reading for the sensual pleasure of language. By negotiating with, appropriating, and revising those models, Bechdel arrives ultimately at her own reading practice which is neither an opposition to nor a harmonious resolution of those influences but an ongoing struggle.

Reading in Fun Home is a site of dynamic tension played out between father and daughter, between the high culture of modernism and the low culture of comics, and--within the graphic medium itself--between words and images. Bechdel deliberately leaves these struggles unresolved, creating in both herself and her readers an intense self-consciousness about the complexity of the reading process. I will argue that Bechdel illuminates that complexity in Fun Home by drawing her readers' attention to the materiality of reading: the book as object and the page in its spatial layout, language as sensuous sound and rhythm, and the embodied experience of both writers and readers. As practiced by Bechdel, as well as by several other comics artists such as Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware, the graphic medium is particularly effective in making visible a physicality that is often overlooked in our traditional understanding of the reading process.


Because graphic narratives require a simultaneous engagement with images and words, the complex nature of reading has been a major issue in critical theorizing about this hybrid medium. In The Aesthetics of Comics, David Carrier proposes that an application of recent theories of reading may offer the most fruitful approach to understanding the comics medium (2000, 79). Philosophical and aesthetic debates about the relationship between visual and verbal representation have a history that long precedes graphic narratives and comics theory. In his widely adopted classical dictum ut pictura poesis ("as is painting, so is poetry" [Ars Poetica]), for example, Horace argues for the basic similarity of painting and poetry in their methods of production and reception. Horace's argument held sway until the eighteenth century, when Gotthold Lessing's essay Laocoon.An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) articulated a challenge to ut pictura poesis that had been percolating since the beginning of the century. Seeking to correct Horace's confusion of the arts, he insists on their separation, designating poetry as a temporal art, painting as a spatial one. Lessing's fear that a merging of the plastic and linguistic arts would contaminate and weaken them both has since been challenged by theorists more open to the positive effects of their interaction.

Debates over the relationship between visual and verbal representation are still a vital part of contemporary critical theory. In the 1960s and 1970s many academic disciplines in the humanities took what was describes as a "linguistic turn" that led scholars to interrogate the reality claims of their fields, most notably in history (Clark 2004), by examining the role of linguistic representation in the construction of that reality. For many critics falling under the influence of the post-structuralist theory of Jacques Derrida and others, textuality became a central concern. This attention to rhetorical methods of analysis was brought into the field of art history by critics like Mieke Bal who encouraged art scholars to expand their interpretive methods to include "reading" visual images as texts. This approach eventually takes a corrective "pictorial turn" in the work of critics like Norman Bryson who seek to recover the material presence and impact of the tactile aspects of the visual arts, drawing attention to the role of embodiment and touch in the creation and reading of images. In the interdisciplinary field of visual studies, most notably in the work of W.J.T. Mitchell on ekphrasis, theorists have traced the power shifts that set the verbal and the visual modes in ongoing conflict and competition.

A tendency to prioritize one mode of representation over the other can still be found in comics criticism, but most theorists have moved beyond this oppositional perspective to give the verbal and visual equal importance, either perceiving them as "seamlessly combined" (Carrier 2000, 4) or set in "productive... tension" (Gardner 2006, 789). (2) The persistent gap that separates words and images is seen as opening up a "field of play" (Cioffi 2001, 98) that is "cross-discursive" (Chute and DeKoven 2006, 768). This open field of play destabilizes conventional reading habits, requiring readers to master a new kind of "double-vision" (Gardner 2006, 801) or "visual-verbal binocularity" (Hirsch 2004, 966) in which they follow both the linear narrative laid out by words and images in sequence and the panoptic or tabular totality of the page's overall design. (3)

I will argue that sophisticated comics creators like Bechdel address explicitly the challenging reading process demanded by their hybrid medium, drawing readers' attention to the materiality of the page, to the panels, frames, and gutters that make up its construction and shape its reception. This hyper-attentiveness has the effect of slowing down the reading process, making the reading of comics, as Gardner argues, no longer a destroyer of "aesthetic contemplation" but an experience in which the reader can develop "new skills of absorption and attention" (2006, 791). In its form as a graphic narrative, Fun Home challenges readers to navigate two different modes of representation; in its themes, Bechdel's memoir further challenges readers by leading them, with Alison, through a variety of often contradictory modes and functions of reading.


Bechdel describes in Fun Home the tension-filled domestic atmosphere in which she was raised, an atmosphere in which reading often provided family members with a solitary refuge. Perusing Dr. Spock for clues to the source of her obsessive compulsive habits, for example, the young Alison enters "a self-soothing autistic loop" in which she occupies simultaneously the position of child and concerned parent (Bechdel 2006, 139). The image accompanying this narrative description shows her totally absorbed in her reading, oblivious to the chaotic family activity around her.

Although reading can provide a refuge from others, it also functions in Alison's life as a means of connection. Her "self-soothing autistic loop" is broken open by a love of books she comes to share with her father, a common ground that enables father and daughter to achieve moments of intimate (although indirect) connection. The narrator notes that it is only when Bruce recognizes her "potential as an intellectual companion" (Bechdel 2006, 198) that the isolation that leaves them both "starved for attention" gives way to a new intimacy in which literature becomes the "currency" of their connection (199, 200). The literature that mediates Bechdel's relationship with her father also shapes her graphic memoir about their entwined lives. As she explains it, "One whole strand of the book is my father's love of literature, and the particular novels and authors that he liked.... I realized that the book was sort of organizing itself around different books or authors; each of the chapters has a different literary focus" (Chute 2006b, 1005).

Although Bechdel makes use of her father's favorite books as an organizing principle in her memoir, she remains deeply ambivalent about high modernism and about her father's dominating influence. In her collection of short comic strips, The Indelible Alison Bechdel (1998), the author draws herself hunched over her desk trying to block out the intrusive figures, most notably her father, crowded around her. Her resistance finds more direct expression in her treatment of the texts her father worshipped: "I wrote all over [my father's] copy of Ulysses, sort of like fuck you. A fuck you both to my dad and to James Joyce.... I wrote in it as I was reading. Sometimes I would draw pictures over the page. I didn't want to treat the book reverentially" (quoted in Chute 2006a, 39). Bechdel explains that she initially gravitated to the comics medium as a creative space safely below the cultural radar of her father's interference. In Fun Home, however, she discovers a "way of coming back and reclaiming [literature] for [her]self" by incorporating literary modernism into the popular medium of comics (Chute 2006b, 1005). This meeting of high and low culture, like the relationship between Alison and her father, is not a harmonious merging but an ongoing struggle, simultaneously a connection and a disconnection. Even working in her chosen medium, Bechdel feels the "inhibiting influence" of her father "looking over [her] shoulder" (1008), a constant looming presence in her reading and writing life.

Fun Home begins with a scene in which Bruce Bechdel interrupts his reading to play a game of airplane with his daughter. By including in her drawing the specific text he has put aside, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Bechdel prompts the reader to recall that novel's opening: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (2006, 1). The unique unhappiness of the Bechdel household derives in part from the fact that Bruce's passions for house renovation and for literature ("Dad was always reading something" [28]) tend to take precedence over meaningful interaction with his family. Ten-year-old Alison's first foray into writing--a daily diary--begins with the entry "Dad is reading," an entry written, in fact, by her father, "as if he were giving me a jump start" (140). Bruce Bechdel's presence as reader and writer thus precedes any mark Alison might make of her own, tracing the author's anxiety of influence back to its childhood source.

Bechdel recognizes and honors the passion and authenticity of her father's relationship to books. In contrast to the uncut and unread volumes in Gatsby's library, those on Bruce's shelves bear the marks of use, and Bechdel draws our attention to their material presence and condition: "the hardbound ones with their ragged dust jackets, the paperbacks with their creased spines--had clearly been read" (2006, 84). When Bechdel draws a page of Joyce's printed text in Fun Home she reproduces her father's underlinings and marginalia, and then superimposes her own commentary in text boxes that at times partially obscure what lies below (226) [Figure 1]. Chute describes the effect of such pages as an "intergenerational palimpsest" of Joyce, Bruce, and Bechdel (2010, 204). The static layering of a palimpsest becomes in this instance a representation of the dynamics of the author's ongoing struggle with familial as well as literary precedents that characterizes reading in Fun Home.

Despite her ambivalence, Bechdel continues to search for her lost father in his books, reading into the traces of his reading life for veiled messages. On discovering his marginal notation in a bird book, entered just days before his death, she asks herself, "Do people contemplating suicide get excited about spotting 'rufous-sided towhees?'"; and she wonders, "Should we have been suspicious when he started plowing through Proust the year before? Was that a sign of desperation?" (2006, 28). All of her father's books resonate in this way for Alison both as symbolic signs and as material reliquaries that preserve his unspoken emotions.

Roland Barthes has explored this strained relationship between reading, writing and fathers from a more theoretical perspective:


"Death of the Father would deprive literature of many of its pleasures. If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories? Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus? Isn't storytelling always a way of searching for one's origin, speaking one's conflicts with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?" (1975, 47). This Oedipal ambivalence is perhaps most painfully articulated in Franz Kafka's Letter to His Father where he concludes that all of his writing had been nothing but a "long-drawn-out leave-taking" from that oppressive paternal influence (1954, 177). Even after his death, Bruce Bechdel continues to provoke in his daughter the need to narrate, but rather than a final leave-taking from her father, Bechdel's writing of Fun Home is an effort to reach out to him. Struggling with conflicted feelings of "tenderness and hatred," of ambivalence and identification, of connection and disconnection, Bechdel simultaneously embraces and resists her father's passions, especially his relationship to books and reading.


Fun Home delves into Bruce Bechdel's early life growing up in a rural town in Pennsylvania, bitterly aware that he is cut off from a wider world of culture and adventure. He is gratified, however, to recognize in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying his own rural experience powerfully captured in literature: "Faulkner IS Beech Creek. The Bundrens ARE Bechdels" (Bechdel 2006, 200). His identification with what he reads is absolute here. At the same time, he also turns to fiction for imagined alternatives to the narrowly circumscribed world of Beech Creek, and his identification with those more remote lives is equally absolute. Of the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" he insists, "He is me" (63). The life and fiction of Fitzgerald, whose European travels, upper-class milieu and tumultuous love life he envies, provide a particularly seductive model for Bruce. Under Fitzgerald's influence, his previously undemonstrative letters to his future wife Helen take on a style "lush with fitzgeraldesque sentiment" (63). (4) Trying to keep his homosexuality at bay, Bruce finds in Fitzgerald a template for the heterosexual, upper-class identity he will also try to construct through renovations of his once gracious Victorian house and in his role as pater familias.

Although Bruce makes an effort to identify with and mimic Fitzgerald's relatively normative heterosexual passion, he finds in his reading life the freedom to transgress social norms and identify across gender lines. He writes to Helen about one Fitzgerald story, '"The Sensible Thing' was written for you and I, now, today.... But I am Jonquil, you are George" (Bechdel 2006, 63). Bruce's relationship with his future wife begins in and continues to be mediated by such literary references: "Your first page is better than Joyce... (except for the line 'And he asked me with his eyes'--which is the best thing ever written--passion on paper who else could do it?)" (227). As the narrator points out, Bruce's misquoting of Joyce's line allows him once again to shift the sexual roles, attributing Molly's seductive gesture ("and then I asked him with my eyes") to Bloom.

Bechdel is at first puzzled by the contradiction between her father's admiration of Joyce's "lengthy libidinal 'yes'" and the "'no' to his own life" that Bruce acts out through his closeted homosexuality and subsequent suicide (2006, 228). She concludes that perhaps the sexual repression and shame in which he was trapped had already made his closeted life "a kind of death" (228). That suicidal drift is perhaps already at play in his desire to replicate Fitzgerald's moments of lost consciousness and control. He writes to Helen, "throwing garbage at the Murphy's garden party!... I want to wake up somewhere not knowing how I got there like they did in Brussels" (62, 65). Her father's need to remain in control in his daily life keeps his desire for such abandon confined primarily to his vicarious reading. Contrasting Bruce's repression of his sexuality to the bold actions of the lesbian editors who published Joyce's novel, the narrator muses, "I like to think they went to the mat for this book because they were lesbians, because they knew a thing or two about erotic truth" (229). (5)

Although Bruce appreciates heterosexual "passion on paper," his "erotic truth" comes to the surface in real life through his attraction to a series of "yard boys" and male students whose literary (and perhaps erotic) education he takes in hand. In the header text, above drawings of her father handing over volumes of Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway to one of these adolescents, the narrator of Fun Home declares laconically, "Whatever else might have been going on, books were being read" (Bechdel 2006, 61). Beyond the narcissistic pleasure of identification, of seeing himself reflected or idealized in various fictional characters, Bruce experiences here the more communal pleasure of sharing his cherished books with others.

Because Bruce tends to mediate all of his relationships through literary texts, Alison herself is often the recipient of proffered books (Bechdel 2006, 204-5). Looking for signs of indirect communication even in these simple exchanges, she opens one awkward conversation with her father tentatively: "I wondered if you knew what you were doing when you gave me that Colette book," to which her father responds vaguely, "It was just a guess.... I guess there was some kind of identification" (220, emphasis added). Alison sustains this indirect mode of connection with her reticent father through similar acts of transmission: "In an eloquent unconscious gesture, I had left [Kate Millet's] Flying for him to return to the library--mirroring his own Trojan horse gift of Colette" (224). For Alison and her father, such Trojan strategies are necessary for the delivery of messages that would otherwise never make it past their personal and cultural censors.

When Bruce lends Alison his copy of Joyce's Portrait he warns her, "You damn well better identify with every page" (Bechdel 2006, 201). In her actual reading and writing life, however, Bechdel exceeds her father's narrow commandment. Describing the evolution of her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, she explains how the initial narcissistic "thrill of catching a reflection of yourself in the cultural mirror" and being released from that "vampiric invisibility" imposed on homosexuals, gradually gave way to a "creatively interactive relationship with [her] readers" (Bechdel 1998, 209, 207), especially in her online blog She does not reject entirely Bruce's "He is me" mode of reading, but she does see its limitations, and even the dangers of "overidentification" (Lemberg 2008, 130). As a writer she chooses open dialogue with different readers rather than the closed circuit of reading for identification.


Even after Alison goes to college her father continues to exert his influence in letters and phone calls, and even as she continues to struggle with his directives she finds herself further oppressed by the symbolic reading practices promoted by her literature professors. One "exasperated" instructor turns, ironically, to a visual aid, furiously drawing an image of a boat on the blackboard to support his symbolic reading of Heart of Darkness: "Get it? Marlow's steamer? Penis. The Congo? Vagina" (Bechdel 2006, 200). When asked in an interview how she feels about academics and reviewers offering symbolic interpretations of her own work, she confesses that as a college student she hadn't yet reached the developmental stage at which one can appreciate such interpretations: "[How] hard it was for me to understand symbolism and literary interpretation. Like, 17 or 18, I just wasn't there yet. I really didn't understand how things could be about something other than what they appeared to be. But now I'm all about that, kind of seeing behind the surface" (quoted in Emmert 2007, 36). She attributes this discovery of layered meanings to her experience with psychoanalysis, a method she foregrounds, although not without irony, in her second memoir, Are You My Mother?

During her college years, Alison's ambivalence toward these reading methods (reading for identification and reading for symbolism) plays itself out in her ambivalence toward her father's favorite authors. She is particularly annoyed by her instructor's heavy-handed analyses of Ulysses, and even more exasperated by Joyce's writing style. One panel shows her grimacing while her professor reads from the text of Ulysses: '"What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom and Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom's thoughts about Stephen? He thought that he thought that he was a Jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not'" (Bechdel 2006, 208). In spite of this early impatience with Joyce's style, in composing her own memoir Bechdel sees its usefulness, and she appropriates and revises this same quotation to suggest the complexities of her relationship to her father: "What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Dad's thoughts about my thoughts about him, and his thoughts about my thoughts about his thoughts about me? He thought that I thought that he was a queer, whereas he knew that I knew that he knew that I was too" (212). The awkward repetitions and twists of Joyce's phrasing capture perfectly the impossibility of understanding the identity, the desire and ultimately the death of another.

Although in college Alison resists her professor's obsessive enumeration of parallels between Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey, as a writer Bechdel appropriates that rejected technique, constructing similar literary parallels in Fun Home, although never without some degree of self-mockery. She uses literary allusions to provide herself and her readers with a clarifying gloss on her parents: "If my father was a Fitzgerald character, my mother stepped right out of Henry James" (Bechdel 2006, 66), and "If The Taming of the Shrew was a harbinger of my parents' later marriage, Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady runs more than a little parallel to their early days together" (70). What is distinctive in Fun Home is that these parallels are not just theoretical but literal, visually embodied in the page layout. In one series of panels, for example, the header text calls up Isabel Archer's dilemma in James's The Portrait of a Lady, while the drawn images below show Helen's similar fall from hopeful adventure abroad to entrapment in a superficially conventional and alienating marriage (71, 72). In the layout of Fun Home, however, fiction and reality don't just run parallel, but cross over. In the final panel of the European stage of her parents' story, the header text relates to Helen instead of Isabel, and the story of Isabel appears in an inserted text box within the frame of the drawn panel [Figure 2]. The two parallel plots become intertwined by way of the interaction of words and images that is the essence of the comics medium.

Bechdel explains that she uses literary parallels in Fun Home "because [her] parents are most real to [her] in fictional terms" (2006, 67), noting that such detachment is perfectly in keeping with the "arctic climate of [her] family" (67). Some critics have observed that Bechdel's use of literary allusions and parallels are a "distancing technique" designed to keep the chaos of life "at bay" (Ball 2012, 14; Schlick 2013, 30). I argue that she is well aware of the cost of such a distancing; the narrator laments that although her parents are made more "real" to her through literary parallels, "you can't lay hands on a fictional character" (84). One of the most poignant scenes in the book occurs when young Alison interrupts her father reading (of course) in bed to kiss him good night. She is so unaccustomed to giving or receiving such physical gestures of affection that the best she can manage is to plant an awkward kiss on his hand (19). Bechdel does make use of parallels and symbols in her graphic narratives, but she transforms those techniques by animating the physical immediacy of the reading process, situating it in the midst of "life's attendant chaos" (149) of desire and loss.



In his review of Fun Home Michael Moon suggests that Bechdel transcends the arctic "bookishness" of her memoir because she is also tuned in to a more life-affirming sensuality evident in what he describes as the "powerful recurrent visual touch" of her writing style (2006, 3). Hillary Chute's subtle and definitive analysis of Fun Home also explores the role of touch and embodiment in relation to Bechdel's reproduction, by hand, of a family archive of photographs and documents, "the instantiation of handwriting as a gripping index of a material, subjective, situated body" (2010, 193). My analysis here focuses on Bechdel's evolution as an embodied reader as well as an embodied writer/artist. As depicted in Fun Home, Bechdel's experience as a reader has a physical immediacy missing from her father's and her teachers' methods. Books are not just alluded to for identification or parallels, but are represented visually as objects held in a reader's hands, mirrored, of course, by our hands holding Fun Home. In her frequent drawings of books touched or held, Bechdel restores the immediacy of the body to the abstract labor of reading. The reader in Fun Home is, as Julia Watson observes, always an "embodied reader" (2012, 308). (6)

Bechdel's mode of embodied reading diverges from the narcissistic or symbolic reading styles of her familial and academic "fathers," and resembles more closely recent theoretical accounts of the experience of reading comics. Many critics have emphasized the reader's active involvement in creating the text as one of the defining characteristics of the comics medium. Comics theory follows here the tradition of reader-response criticism associated with Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, and others. Bechdel nods to that school of thought in a scene where Alison is browsing in a bookstore in front of a bookcase displaying Umberto Eco's The Role of the Reader. Taking a theoretical position closer to Bruce Bechdel's manner of reading, Scott McCloud argues that the comics creator is "aided and abetted by a silent accomplice" (1993, 68), a "willing and conscious collaborator" (65) whose attentive reading animates the simplified icons of characters with whom he or she identifies. McCloud argues that the comics form "has harnessed the power of cartoons to command viewer involvement and identification" (204, emphasis added). Other theorists, notably Philippe Marion, posit a reader capable of more sophisticated and self-reflexive responses, emphasizing, as Bechdel does in Fun Home, the materiality of the book, its author and its reader. These critics argue that it is through the indexical traces left by the author/artist's hand that the reader identifies not only with the comics characters but with the comics creator, to become a "virtual graphiateur" in his or her own right. (7) Thus reading becomes a form of writing, and both are marked by the indexical traces of the body.

Bechdel's focus on the nexus of reading, materiality, and the body marks her widest diversion from the paths laid out by her father and her professors. In one panel she depicts her professor lying on the couch in his living room immobilized by his bad back, lecturing his students about Ulysses. On the facing page, Bechdel draws Alison in bed, in precisely the same posture, reading (and masturbating to) Colette (2006, 207) [Figure 3]. The intellectual detachment of symbolic reading is trumped here by the intimacy of a more directly embodied, experiential reading.

Bechdel's theoretical sophistication and playful wit don't allow her to take too literally the notion that a text can capture the immediacy of bodily experience. In one self-mocking sequence, for example, Alison buys herself a Swiss army knife to "salve the wound" caused by her mother's unsympathetic response to her coming out. When she accidentally cuts her finger on the knife, she "smear[s] the blood into [her] journal, pleased by the opportunity to transmit [her] anguish to the page so literally" (Bechdel 2006, 78). The bathos of the moment is undercut by a little arrow pointing to the smear, bearing the deadpan label "my blood." In spite of the narrator's self-mocking detachment here from her adolescent Sturm und Drang, such reminders of the materiality and vulnerability of bodies and of books disrupt the illusion of reading as disembodied, cerebral and transparent.



One of the discoveries that unsettles Alison in her adolescence is that the body is a sensual and sexual body, and Bechdel traces the relationship between reading and drawing and her erotic awakening. Her interest in exploring the sensual immediacy of our relationship to books and language takes her into theoretical territory that has been well travelled since the 1960s. In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag called for an "erotics of art" that might displace the "hermeneutic" method dominating literary analysis (1961, 14). Perhaps the most intimate and nuanced example of an "erotics" of reading is articulated in Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text, in which he describes how his assumptions, his expectation of the "clarity of messages," give way at times to the "bliss" of language experienced by the body, "a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning" (1981, 66-67). Immersing himself in the living materiality of language, in "the sumptuous rank of the signifier" (65), Barthes takes pleasure in the "rhythm of what's read and not read" (11). (8)

In her earliest childhood practice of writing a diary, however, Alison experiences more anxiety than pleasure, and it is some time before she discovers the erotic potential of language and of drawing. Fretting over the impossibility of conveying objective truth in language, she punctuates her reports of even the most banal events with uncertainty: "I made popcorn I think" (Bechdel 2006, 141). (9) In a strategy not unlike Derrida's method of putting certain words "sous rature" (under erasure), Alison draws a circumflex over individual words or entire pages of her diary, a method that allows her to use language and yet to mark its limitations. [Figure 4] Bechdel describes these writing tics as "gossamer sutures in that gaping rift between signifier and signified" (142), but they also function as visible reminders of those gaps. In contrast to McCloud's assertion that the comics reader brings unity and "closure" to the text, Fun Home exposes the difficulties of reading and writing, materializing them on the surface of the page rather than denying their inevitability.


With her entry into adolescence, when her struggles with language are compounded by her ambivalence about her emerging sexual feelings, Alison succumbs to self-censorship in her diary entries, where "the truth is barely perceptible behind a hedge of qualifiers, encryption, and stray punctuation" (Bechdel 2006, 169). Her most rigorous censorship is reserved for references to her menstrual periods and experiments with masturbation, which are described in code as "Ning" (170). The body that is repressed in Alison's diary, however, returns in her later reading life, where she becomes more open to the "carnal stereophony" celebrated by Barthes. Randomly browsing in the dictionary, she comes across the word "orgasm": "it was instantly familiar before I even got to the definition. I didn't need to know phonetics to recognize the approximant liquid of that 'or,' the plosive ga,' the fricative 'z,' or the labial, nasal sigh of the final 'um'" (171). Language takes on a striking materiality in Fun Home not only in Bechdel's painstaking drawings of pages of books and letters, but in the bodily production of sounds that have corporeal significance even before they are given semantic meaning.

Bechdel gradually replaces her father's pantheon of favorite authors with her own, singling out writers like Colette who guide her sensual and sexual education. She quotes approvingly from one critical text on the writer, "Collette could write better than anyone about physical things; they include the feel of a peach in one's hand" (2006, 207). An erotic contagion takes Alison from one coming out story to another, and finally to "a trove [of books about homosexuality] which [she] quickly ravished" (75). Reading as identification is certainly operating here, but with a physical immediacy missing from Bruce's literary adventures. Masturbating as she reads Anais Nin or Colette, Alison experiences pleasures that are "stimulating but solitary," and eventually she feels the need to "leave this academic plane and enter the human fray" (76).

Although she feels the need to move on from reading about homosexuality to acting on her lesbian desires more directly, books are not left behind but rather enhance that journey of discovery. Depictions of Alison with her first lover show them naked in a bed strewn with feminist texts, in what was for her "a novel fusion of word and deed" (Bechdel 2006, 80) [Figure 5]. There is sexual play over the newly eroticized dictionary: as Joan reads "Os--mouth. Oral, oscillate, osculate, orifice," Alison tongues her lover's ear, murmuring "Oh" (80). Even children's books like James and the Giant Peach seem hilariously pornographic (81). The life of the body censored from her childhood diary returns here for these lover-readers not with a vengeance but with delight, and books and reading are at the center of this celebration.


The body with its desires and vulnerabilities, however, is no more certain terrain than language. Alison's complicated feelings about her newly discovered lesbian sexuality are reflected in the tension between text and image that occurs in those scenes. Fun Home includes drawings of Alison engaged in sexual play with her first lover, but these explicit images are juxtaposed with the veiled indirection and distancing of her mock heroic commentary: "Like Odysseus on the island of the Cyclops, I found myself facing a 'being of colossal strength and ferocity, to whom the law of man and god meant nothing.' In true heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared. Yet while Odysseus schemed desperately to escape Polyphemus's cave, I found that I was quite content to stay here forever" (Bechdel 2006, 214). She expresses her erotic pleasure here, but only euphemistically, mediating the moment through literary allusion.

At first the form of Bechdel's treatment of this episode of sexual initiation seems to reinforce a simplistic opposition of images as direct and grounded in physical reality, and text as indirect and metaphorical. At the end of this sexual initiation sequence, however, the materiality of the body has crossed over into the mythological register of the text. When the narrator explains that her lover lost one eye in a childhood accident and is consequently a "bona fide Cyclops" (Bechdel 2006, 215), the text overcomes its previous allegorical evasion to acknowledge the reality of bodily experience (and loss). At the same time, the metaphorical allusion grants that experience a mythological importance--her lover is both a "bona fide" body bearing the wounds of her lived experience and a larger-than-life "Cyclops." Myth and materiality set each other vibrating here as the reader oscillates between words and images, and between the literary and the literal. This is the sort of interaction--of books and bodies--that animates an erotics of reading in Fun Home. As an ongoing struggle between the literary and the literal, reading in Bechdel's memoir precludes resolution but generates play.


This play between the literary and the literal, between fiction and fact, is foregrounded in Bechdel's use of photographs in the form and thematic content of Fun Home. She describes in interviews how literary texts provided a structure for her memoir, each chapter title referring to a different author whose work is used to frame the chapter's themes: struggles with identity (Joyce), desire (Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust) and death (Albert Camus). Each title page, however, also depicts a hand-drawn photograph. As a counterpoint to the imaginative association of her family drama with selected fictional plots, the photographs lend authority and actuality to her story; as she explains, they "anchor the story in real life... [and] keep reminding readers, these are real people. This stuff really happened" (Chute 2006b, 1009). Because she chooses to draw instead of reproduce those family photographs, their status as objective evidence is weakened; the drawn photographs are an approximation that cannot escape the subjective trace of her hand and her personal feelings about what the images represent. The photograph as fact takes on the glow of something more: "These are photos that feel particularly mythic to me" (1009, emphasis added).

Despite her investment in the evidentiary authority of photographs, Bechdel is acutely aware of the codes and conventions by which photographs produce what is essentially a "reality effect." (10) That effect is carefully constructed in the Bechdels' family photos for and by the camera, usually under Bruce's direction. In the header text over a panel depicting her father photographing family members as a pristine unit in their Sunday best, the narrator cautions the reader, "He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not" (Bechdel 2006, 16). Such warnings unsettle the reassuring distinction between literary fiction and photographic fact.

In creating her graphic memoir, nevertheless, Bechdel turns to photography in a desire to achieve in her drawings the very accuracy she despaired of in her diary writings. In preparation for drawing individual panels of Fun Home Bechdel posed and photographed herself as each character in a given scene--even dressing up and posing as her father in his coffin (Chute 2006b, 1009-10). Ironically, in her working process Bechdel pursues objective accuracy by masquerading as other subjects (including her younger selves), standing in for them and experiencing the situation, at least for the moment of the photographic pose, from their point of view.

This tendency of Fun Home to destabilize the distinction between fact and fiction, between identity and masquerade, is perhaps most fully developed in chapter four. The title, "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower" (from Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu), appears below a photograph of a young woman in a bathing suit posing seductively (Bechdel 2006, 87) [Figure 6]. At first, title and image seem to reinforce each other. In the course of the chapter, however, in which we learn that Proust would often "fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender" (94), the identity of those "Young Girls" is cast in "Shadow." (11) At the end of the chapter, our reading of the initial bathing beauty photo is unsettled by the revelation that it is a picture of the young Bruce Bechdel in drag. The narrator remarks appreciatively, "the pose he strikes is not mincing or silly at all. He's lissome, elegant" (120). Bechdel sees in the bathing beauty image a successful moment of gender crossing in which Bruce achieved at least the semblance of that femininity in flower to which Proust alludes.

When this photograph reappears in the final panel of the chapter it is obscured behind two other photographs--one of Bruce and one of Alison--that tell a different story [Figure 7]. In this second image of Bruce sunbathing [not in drag) with male friends on a rooftop, the natural elegance of his feminine masquerade has been replaced by an awkwardness that reflects his discomfort with his homosexuality. As Bechdel observes, the same discomfort is also evident in a similar photograph of herself and her friends on a city rooftop. In both of these images the "shadow" of the emerging beauty of Proust's "young girls in flower" is transformed into both the literal and figurative shadow of concealment "falling across our faces." Reading similar signs of constraint in their expressions and body language, Bechdel feels at last an intimate identification and connection with her father. She concludes, "It's about as close as a translation can get" (2006, 120).


Reading texts or images always involves an act of translation, and Bechdel is aware that something is always lost in that process. Insisting on the inadequacy of the English rendering of Proust's "temps perdu" as "time lost," Bechdel elaborates: "Not just lost but ruined, undone, wasted, wrecked, and spoiled. What's lost in translation is the complexity of loss itself (2006, 119-20). Bechdel's detailed drawing of the bathing beauty photo with its cracks and tears recaptures some of that complexity. Time has left its mark on the photograph as material object; yet because Bechdel has intertwined the image with Proust's narrative, it still conjures up the flowering of time past and the persistence of desire.

This convergence of loss, desire and photography leads back to Barthes's study of photography, Camera Lucida, in which he relates his own search for an image that would capture the essence of his dead mother. The only photograph that delivers the connection he seeks is one of his mother as a child. Although it constitutes the very heart of his book, that image is not reproduced in Camera Lucida. Bechdel is engaged in a similar quest for a lost parent, and she too discovers a single photograph at the center of her quest. Unlike Barthes, however, she reproduces this image at the very center of Fun Home in its only two-page spread (Bechdel 2006, 100-1). What she finds in that photograph is not the essence or presence of her dead father, but rather the traces of his desire.

Rummaging through her father's papers Alison comes across an envelope labeled "family," containing pictures from a family vacation chaperoned by her father and the babysitter Roy [Figure 8]. She discovers there a photograph of the young man lying on his hotel bed in his underwear. She describes its importance in an interview: "The whole story was spawned by a snapshot I found of our old babysitter lying on a hotel bed in his jockey shorts.... It was a stunning glimpse into my father's hidden life, this life that was apparently running parallel to our regular everyday existence.... [Over] the years that picture persisted in my memory. It's literally the core of the book, the centerfold" (Chute 2006b, 1005-6). She experiences the photo of Roy as both generative and haunting, productive and paralyzing.

For the reader, Roy's image abruptly suspends the temporality of the preceding sequence of narrative panels, and the image of Alison's hands holding the photograph bleeds off the page in a nondescript ink wash without frame, gutter or spatial context. Both time and space come unmoored at this moment. The double-page spread and the enlargement of the image extend the moment in time and the body in space, conveying visually the intensity and duration of the original viewer's fascinated gaze. Barthes describes this experience of gazing at certain photographs and feeling their effects as simultaneously visual and tactile: "From a real body... proceed radiations which ultimately touch me.... The photograph of the missing being ... will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze; light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed" (1981, 80-81). The viewer and the object on view, he argues, are "glued together, limb by limb,... as though united by an eternal coitus" (5). Alison's reading of the photograph of Roy is similarly attuned to this sensual aspect of the non-digital photographic process and of the image's impact on her: "Perhaps I identify too well with my father's illicit awe. A trace of this seems caught in the photo, just as a trace of Roy has been caught on the light-sensitive paper" (Bechdel 2006, 101). The erotic lure of the image spreads by contagion from Roy to Bruce, from Bruce to Alison and finally to the reader.

That erotic unmooring is brought back under control by the hand holding the image, and by the white border that frames it on the photographic print. The cryptic temporal indicators printed on that border restore the image to a specific month and year ("AUG" and "69"), and draw attention to Bruce's half-hearted attempts to blot out that information. Alison tries to make sense of this "evidence" as typical of her father's ambivalence toward the forbidden desires that he simultaneously censors and leaves exposed in what one critic describes as an "unresolved dialectic of withholding and revelation" (Ball 2012, 7). With those ineffectual blots Bruce leaves a trace of his reading on the surface of the image, just as he left traces in the marginalia and underlinings that marked the books in his library. His reading of images, like his reading of texts, is active rather than passive.

Ray's image is suspended under the gaze of Bruce, the narrator and the reader, but that moment is affected by what precedes and what follows it in the surrounding narrative. In the page directly before the centerfold Bruce is shown reading Kenneth Clark's The Nude; that reference provides a framing discourse of art history for Alison's initial response to the image of Roy. She notes its "low contrast and out of focus" suggestiveness, the "blurriness [that] gives it an ethereal, painterly quality" in which "Roy is gilded with morning seaside light. His hair is an aureole" (Bechdel 2006, 100). Roy's pose, spread out luxuriously in bed, his body tilted toward the viewer for maximum display, mimics the high art conventions of the female nude. Such an academic approach to the image constitutes an alibi that de-eroticizes and distances its impact. However, the formal arrangement of the page--text boxes surrounding but not obscuring the image, as if embracing Roy's body--restores the sensual intimacy missing from the text's discussion of the "aesthetic merits" of the image.

At this literal midpoint of her memoir, Bechdel foregrounds the shifting rhythms of our reading process. We share in Bruce's fascination with the photograph of Roy when our movement forward in the narrative is suspended at the centerfold. But that stillness is broken when we turn the page and find the photograph of Roy as one of several small images in a sequence of negatives that resemble a movie film strip [Figure 9]. Roy appears here among photographs from the family vacation, next to more conventional shots of the children playing on the sunlit beach. The still shot of Roy is transformed not only by its appearance in sequence, but in negative; that foregrounding of the photograph's mode of production further shatters its entrancing power. The pattern of gender "inversion" (Bechdel 2006, 98) that characterizes the relationship between Alison (as "butch) and her father (as "sissy") is embodied here in the negative's inversion of the prints' light and dark values. The header text contrasts the "dark, murky" image of Roy's body with the "bright shots" of the kids on the beach. However, in the sequence of negatives accompanying that description, it is Roy's body that is saturated with light and the beach scenes that appear dark. Desire is perhaps most fully illuminated not in its centerfold enlargement but indirectly, in the inverted form of the negative.

Bechdel's readings of photographs in Fun Home provide a model of how to read slowly, how to linger over detail lovingly and thoughtfully, how to read the intimate embrace of words and images. Bechdel acknowledges the limitations of what we can and can't read: '"Erotic truth' is a rather sweeping concept. I shouldn't pretend to know what my father's was" (2006, 230). Yet despite the inadequacy of the mere approximation of our verbal and visual representations, transmission does occur, even the transmission of such ephemeral things as loss and desire.



In Fun Home Bechdel acknowledges the limitations of words and images, but she also foregrounds the rich potential of their interaction in the comics medium. Contrary to early denunciations of the comics medium as "the death of reading" (Wertham 1953, 121), and contrary to some students' expectation that reading graphic narratives will be quicker and easier than reading novels, self-reflexive works like Bechdel's memoir challenge our most ingrained and unconscious reading habits. Art Spiegelman notes the change in the status of comics "from being an icon of illiteracy to becoming one of the last bastions of literacy" (1995, 61); and Fun Home has been singled out as "an exemplary text about shifts in literacy" (Watson 2012, 305).

Bechdel's work is "exemplary," in particular, of the most recent debates over academic reading methods--a movement away from the "symptomatic reading" that seeks out what is repressed or hidden in a given text, toward a revised and revived close reading, a "surface reading" that lingers over the complexities inscribed there. In 2009, an issue of Representations, edited by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, was devoted to this trend. Although theorists of "surface reading" define the surface as something that "insists on being looked at rather than... see[n] through," they insist that it is not to be confused with superficiality: "[many] dismiss surface reading as obvious, but find themselves unable to sustain the slow pace, receptiveness, and fixed attention it requires" (Best and Marcus 2009, 9, 18). Carried to its extreme, this method approaches a kind of mania, a "hyperbolically close reading" (Hensley 2012, 334) that might be compared to the young Alison's obsessive compulsive disorder and Bechdel's meticulous and labor-intensive creative process.

The reading struggles dramatized in Bechdel's memoir highlight a cluster of characteristics that also form the basis of this newly articulated practice of "surface reading": an assertion that the surface of the text already reveals the interpretive "depth" thought to lie hidden beneath it; an emphasis on the materiality of the page, the book, and the embodied perception of the reader; an attentiveness to detail that requires slow and meditative reading; a sensitivity to the reader's experience of the rhythms and pacing of the text; and a recognition that cognitive activity, inherently visual and embodied, is shaped by the reader's "spatial unconscious" (Crane 2009, 78).

The academic "reading wars" intersect here with ongoing debates about the relationship between verbal and visual representation in comics. Comics theorists associate the materiality and rhythms of reading with the particular structure of the graphic medium. As Chute and Marianne DeKoven describe it: "Graphic narrative, through its most basic composition in frames and gutters--in which it is able to gesture at the pacing and rhythm of reading and looking... --calls a reader's attention visually and spatially to the act, process and duration of interpretation" (2006, 767). They argue that the comics reader's heightened awareness of the materiality of the "surfaces" of the page and the corporeal "work of the hand" makes it impossible to experience visual or verbal representation in comics as disembodied and objective.


In Fun Home, Bechdel narrates in words and images the story of her own development as a reader and the struggles it entailed. This memoir, which is as much about her father as herself, suggests that what is ultimately at stake in our reading lives is how we relate to others--in identification, in desire, and in loss. Some reading theorists reason that by practicing a "mutual pedagogy of erotics" (Cheng 2009)--focused less on what lies "beneath" or "behind" the surface and more on how elements in a text coexist "beside" and "in touch" with each other (Apter and Freedgood 2009; Sedgwick 2003)--we may develop the techniques necessary for a more ethical relation to the other (Gallop 2000). Taking up this ethical imperative, Bechdel stays "in touch" with the various methods of reading she encounters, honoring their differences, exposing their limitations and holding them in productive tension. Following Bechdel's lead, readers of Fun Home will be rewarded if they proceed with care, respecting the integrity and unknowability of the identity, desire and death of the other. In Fun Home Bechdel takes us "about as close as a translation can get" (2006, 120).


(1) Bechdel also won the Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Most recently, she was honored with the coveted MacArthur "genius" Award in 2014.

(2) As Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons, the editors of The Language of Comics, point out, contributions in that 2001 volume by David Kunzle, David Q. Berona and Todd Taylor favor image over text. In contrast, Charles Hatfield (2005) explores in depth the different kinds of tension experienced by the reader's simultaneous reception of words and images.

(3) See Thierry Groensteen (2009), Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle (2000) and Hatfield (2005) on this process of reading words and images at once. For a particularly insightful close analysis of what a reader may experience in such "double" reading see Thomas Bredehoft's 2005 essay on the comics of Chris Ware.

(4) Although Fitzgerald provides a heterosexual model for Bruce's desire, when he is in the army he is caught reading that author's autobiography (instead of Playboy) in the barracks. This provokes teasing insinuations about his sexual orientation, as one soldier points to the photograph of Fitzgerald on the book jacket and remarks, "'S this your boyfriend? He's even prettier 'n you" (Bechdel 2006, 63). In this context literariness itself is perceived as "queer." On the "queer temporality" of Fun Home see Ann Cvetkovich (2008). I discuss the relation of house renovations to Bruce's sexuality in "Under Construction: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home" (Lydenberg 2012).

(5) Bechdel's models for sexual honesty range from the high modernism of Joyce's novels to the equally daring comics work of artists like Aline Kominsky-Crumb (quoted in Chute 2006b, 1012).

(6) On the materiality of the page and the element of touch in comics in general and in Fun Home in particular see Hatfield (2005), Robyn Warhol (2011), Julia Watson (2008) and Chute (2010).

(7) For an astute summary of the theories of Philippe Marion about the reader as "virtual graphiateur" see Jan Baetens (2002).

(8) Ann Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen (2000) recognize the usefulness of Barthes's work for comics theory in their introduction to Comics and Culture.

(9) For a nuanced analysis of Alison's diary and a helpful overview of the word/image relationship see Valerie Rohy (2010).

(10) For a discussion of how what Michel Foucault calls the "regime of truth" is created through precise codes and conventions in photography, see John Tagg (1999). See Hatfield (2005) on Spiegelman's use of photographs as "ironic authentication" in Maus (148).

(11) The narrator also points out that in Proust's novel not only gender difference but other "diametrically opposed" pairs ("bourgeois vs. aristocratic, homo vs. hetero, city vs. country, eros vs. art, private vs. public") are shown to converge in a "network of transversals" (Bechdel 2006, 102).


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ROBIN LYDENBERG is Professor of English at Boston College. She is the author of Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs' Fiction (1987) and GONE: Site-specific Works by Dorothy Cross (2005). She has published articles on avant-garde artistic practice, psychoanalysis, and modern and contemporary fiction.
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