Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
by Alison Bechdel
In my second semester in a graduate school, I was shocked to see Art Speigelman’s Maus on the reading list. The program was supposed to be soley focused on creative nonfiction. So why were we reading a graphic novel?
The professor explained that Maus book was a work of nonfiction. That made it even worse. I knew Maus was about the Holocaust. There was something about not only reading the horrific story but seeing it that seemed almost too much to bear.
Although I was given the option to not read the book, I bought it anyway. All it took was the illustration on the back cover of a nattily dressed mouse telling a story to his cigarette-smoking mouse son and my resistance melted. I cracked open the pages and fell in.
All through my childhood, my reading life mainly consisted of twin literary loves: nonfiction stories – autobiographies, mostly – and comic books. And here were the best elements of both: a powerful life story narrative and the fanciful renderings of graphic art. I read it cover to cover without stopping.
It wasn’t until I became a memoir writer and teacher, that I realized Maus was not just nonfiction, nor was it a graphic “novel,” as reviewers referred to it. It was memoir. And it was not the first graphic memoir I’d ever read.
Maus follows a long tradition of comic as personal narrative going back to the underground classics of my hippie days, books like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and the work of early feminist graphic artists like Trina Robbins and Aline Kominsky. Even Bill Griffy, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, made memoir-like appearances in his fantasy books, drawing himself into the comic to spout his neurotic ramblings directly to the reader and his famous creation.
Enter Alison Bechdel, the comic artist whose syndicated strip Dykes To Watch Out For, based on her own life, had been syndicated in many gay, lesbian and alternative magazines. In 2006, a memoir, Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic was released, followed in 2012, by Are You My Mother? which was widely reviewed in mainstream literary publications. It was this book that finally got my attention. A graphic memoir? No kidding! (I was still under the delusion such things were rarities.) When my library hold on the books released the two together, I decided to read them both, one after another.
Fun Home centers on Bechel’s childhood, especially the relationship with her closeted father and the unraveling history of her sexual orientation. At times, I was stunned by her honesty, which, accompanied by images, left no room for misunderstanding.
Bechdel may think of herself as an artist first, but she is a wonderful writer as well as an accomplished illustrator. I found myself drawn into the story, fascinated with the way she wrestled to understand herself as well as her father. But as I continued to read, it began to dawn on me that viewing the details of memoir graphically rendered on the page was a striking lesson in writing.
Take for example, a scene of young Alison walking through New York’s East Village as an eight-year-old. The caption reads: “Roy took us for a walk while Dad went up to the apartment. In the hot August afternoon, the city was reduced, like a long-simmering demiglace, to a fragrance of stunning richness and complexity.”
In the illustration accompanying the words, you see a small girl in the midst of a busy city taking in all the sights and sounds. The addition of tiny arrow boxes draws our eyes to the odorific details: a splash of diesel on the ground, shit under a crouching dog, urine and electricity rising from the subway entrance, Brut emanating in scent waves from a man’s underarm.
In my own work, I labor to write through the senses and lecture my students incessantly about the importance of sensory details. But I had never seen it as plainly and powerfully rendered as in this one drawing. The entire panel was a kind of a map for those seeking to paint pictures with their prose.
Bechel does this throughout, stretching us into her world with rich detail, making clear that a narrator’s observations reveal not just the physical elements, but the inner life of the one telling the story. You begin to know young Alison as a specific type of kid: a codependent, hyper-vigilant girl who obsessively takes note of everything around her.
Are You My Mother? is even more technically complex than Fun Home. In this second memoir, Bechdel often refers to dreams in the book, cueing the reader in by framing the story against a black background. The transition from dream back to reality is often jarring, but made possible by the lifting of the black border. The graphic overlay of darkness surrounding the book’s passages into the subconscious had me wondering if a similar shading can applied in prose. Certainly, italics and indentations are useful in signaling sections of dreams or internal musings, but perhaps there is something else a writer can do, a kind of darkening of the prose that alerts the reader to another layer of consciousness.
On almost every page, the visual techniques employed by Bechdel inspired and challenged me as a writer. In one chapter, she walks outside among a 17-year cicada invasion and conveys her amazement with the natural world, Later, we see her at her drawing table, a dead cicada among the many kid-kept items displayed on the desk. It reminded me how important the continuity of detail is when re-creating a life on the page.
There are many layers to Bechdel’s memoirs, especially in Mother, where she includes sections of text from the child psychology books she is reading, transcribed phone conversations with her mother, scraps of newspaper clippings and journal entries. I became dizzy at times absorbing all the information.
It is this shape-shifting in Bechdel’s work, the layering of thoughts, the back and forth of time, the dreams, the gut-level honesty that makes this memoir unforgettable. I find myself referring back to it for inspiration, laughs and instruction in how to connect the dots between the lived life and one that circles constantly in the imagination.
After reading Fun Home and Mother, I researched graphic memoirs and was surprised and pleased to find that that just as in the “word-only” book world, the past few years have seen a resurgence of personal writing baldy referred to as graphic memoirs (as opposed to graphic “novel.)” Such books range from childhood memoirs (Stitches by David Small) to very adult topics (Paying For It by Chester Brown). Some, like Bechdel's, which depict frankly intimate scenes of with her female lovers, are a little bit of both.
I feel like a kid in a candy store (or at least a kid back in the comic section of a newsstand). Who would have ever thought reading comics could be instructive? Maybe it’s the old comic book fan in me or maybe it’s simply the joy of discovering a new vein in contemporary nonfiction that has me so excited. Whatever the reason, I plan on reading a lot more graphic memoir, not only for the pleasure of taking in good writing, but for lessons on wildly innovative approaches to illustrating memory.
The Glen Rock Book of the Dead
by Marion Winik (Counterpoint Press)
Sometimes you come across a book that you wish you had written. Marion Winik’s Glen Rock Book of the Dead is one of those books for me.
In this slim volume of short essays, Winik recalls people she has known who have passed away, identifying them by profession, personality trait and other pity one-word descriptions which capture the essence of who they were. Some folks were close, such as “The Skater,” her first husband, or her brother-in-law, “The Carpenter.” Others were only known tangentially, like “The Neighbor,” a boy who shared her school bus stop in the sixth grade but never played with the other kids and ended up killing himself in college.
Winik was inspired to write a series of portraits of people who have passed on by Stephen Dunn’s poem, "Tenderness." She began to think about structuring the book in the manner of Master’s "Spoon River Anthology," only with real characters. The result is an astonishing portrait of not only people, place and time but an inspired memoir of Winik’s life, which is revealed in pieces like tiny mosaic tiles embedded throughout the stories of those whose paths crossed with hers.
“My life has been shaped as much by people who are no longer living by as people who are,” writes Winik in her Author’s Notes. By showing us this through the lens of the everyday lives of others, the greater truths of Winik’s own story emerges.
While reading the book, I kept thinking of Jim Carroll’s song “These are People Who Died,” not only because of the compact form and subject matter, but because of Winik’s startlingly honest voice, which never takes itself (or its subject matter too seriously).
It’s always thrilling to come across a memoir that stretches the boundaries of structure and style (and I do consider this a memoir). For this reason alone, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead should be on the must-read list of any writer of personal narrative. It’s the kind of writing that inspires new ways of thinking about writing about life, death, and all the awful, wonderful, fascinating quotidian events that happen in between.
Half the House by Richard Hoffman
Harvest, Harcourt Brace
Richard Hoffman begins the Afterword of the 1996 edition of his memoir, Half the House, with this quote from Elie Wiesel: “Memory is not only a victory over time, it is also a triumph over justice.”
What follows is the author’s explanation of the events that happened after the memoir about the abuse suffered at the hands of Hoffman’s youth baseball coach, Tom Feifel, was first published.
The book itself is a marvel to read, a non-linear yet marvelously clear construction of a young life undone and the decades of destruction that followed. The writing itself is reason enough to celebrate this memoir.
But we find out in the Afterword that the book set in motion actions that led to the arrest of his perpetrator, who was still abusing young boys. Reading Half the House, it’s obvious that Hoffman never wrote it for revenge, or for the purpose of “getting” at Feifel. He didn’t write for “catharsis,” as a radio announcer interviewing him suggested. He wrote it, he said, because he was a writer and he had to.
“I told her (the announcer) that Camus once said, in a radio interview, we make art ‘to save from death a living image of our passions and our sufferings."
This is what is so stunning to me about Hoffman’s book and about the writer himself. He articulates not only the life of the boy and the man who survived trauma and family heartache, but of the truth-teller who breaks the taboo by speaking of the unspeakable.
I immediately thought of Half the House when the Penn State scandal emerged. Not only because the story is so close to what happened to those young men who were befriended by Jerry Sandusky but because of the fallout afterwards: the disbelief, the outrage, questioning the victims, the long silence that kept this system of abuse in place for so long.
“My book is not about my life,” Hoffman said in that same radio interview. “It is about our life.”
Loss. Shame. The cultural pressure to stay silent. Not many people who share this life are able to tell it with such power and beauty. Half the House is one of those rare books that tells a story that enters the heart and makes it our own.