Though Alison has suggested Bruce killed himself, it could also be argued that he accidentally died while gardening, as he was clearing brush from a yard across a road when he jumped back into the path of an oncoming truck “as if he saw a snake.” Of all of Bruce’s domestic inclinations, Alison disliked Bruce’s love of flowers the most, and thought his love of them made him seem like a “sissy.” The Bechdel home and yard was filled with flowers, vines, and trees of all kinds. Their games of baseball would end prematurely whenever the ball rolled near a patch of weeds and Bruce became obsessed with pulling them out. At the funeral home, Bruce would tweak the arrangements sent in by the florist. Bruce’s favorite flower was the lilac, a tragic flower because it invariably began “to fade even before reaching its peak.” Alison includes Proust’s description of the lilacs bordering Swann’s Way in Remembrance of Things Past, a book Bruce had begun reading the year before he died.
Alison’s view of her father as a “sissy” largely because of his love of flowers shows her own societally-enforced ideas of what male masculinity should look like. So, her coming-of-age is largely influenced by trying to overcompensate for the traditional masculinity she felt her family was missing. Further, flowers and their placement around the Bechdel home come in many ways to symbolize Bruce’s artifice: though they appear sweet, fresh and innocent, the flowers are part of the illusion of Bruce’s innocence and serve to conceal the shame of his secret that pervades through the house.
Over images of Bruce bringing Alison and her brothers on an illegal flower-stealing trip, Alison narrates that Proust describes Swann’s garden in flowery prose, culminating in the narrator seeing a little girl surrounded by flowers in the garden. Over an image of Bruce saying that the most beautiful pink in the world is that of the pink dogwood flower, Alison narrates that The Narrator in Proust’s book, failing to distinguish the girl from the flowers, instantly falls in love with her. Alison thinks Marcel Proust might be the only greater pansy than her father.
It is not only Bruce and Proust’s love of flowers that makes Alison view them as “pansies,” but in this case it is also their respective inabilities to distinguish reality from fiction—just as Bruce can see the beauty in a flower but not in his children, the narrator of Proust’s book cannot see the difference between the beauty of flowers and the beauty of a human girl.
Over illustrations of Helen letting Roy into the house, Alison narrates that Proust would have close friendships with women, but it was young men with whom he fell in love. Alison says that Proust would often “fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender,” just as the narrator’s lover Albertine may have been a stand-in for Proust’s love for his chauffeur/secretary, Alfred. Though Bruce couldn’t afford a chauffeur/secretary, Roy, along with many of Bruce’s other high school students, stood in for that role, as Bruce cultivated and groomed the young men much in the same way he did his garden.
Similarly to how Proust hides his homosexual feelings by transposing them onto female characters in his novel, Bruce has romantic physical relationships with men while his marriage to Helen becomes a lot more like a friendship, or even a partnership, than a loving romantic relationship.
Alison, too, admired the masculine beauty of these young men. At an early age Alison “had become a connoisseur of masculinity.” Over an image of Bruce fussing with a vase of flowers while Alison, as a young girl, watches a cowboy TV show, Alison narrates that she sensed a chink in her family’s armor on the masculinity front. She measured her father against the deer hunters at the gas station, and where her father fell short Alison tried to step in, causing her to dress as a tomboy. Alison counted as an indication of her success the nickname of “Butch” bestowed on her by her older cousins. No one needed to explain to Alison what it meant—Butch was “the opposite of sissy.”
Alison’s admiration for masculine beauty and the physically imposing cowboy archetype shows how she is just as intolerant of Bruce’s feminine-leaning male identity as he is to her masculine-leaning female identity. Bruce naturally tends towards traditionally feminine kinds of beauty (like flowers) and Alison toward masculine ones (like basketball or the nickname “Butch”). Although they are both aware of society’s expectations for them, while coming of age they push back against them, and though they’re not fully open about it, they both (in some ways at least) act on who they are.
Though Bruce held power over her, Alison repeats that it was clear to her that her father was a “sissy.” Proust referred to his homosexual characters as “inverts,” and Alison has always been fond of this outdated term which defines “the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex.” But in the example of Alison and Bruce, the two of them actually seemed to be inversions of one another. While Alison tried to compensate for something unmanly in Bruce, he attempted to express something feminine through Alison in “a war of cross-purposes.” So, Bruce and Alison fought throughout Alison’s childhood and adolescence, though they shared common ground in their appreciation of male fashion and masculine beauty.
Alison is a woman who wishes to express her masculinity, whereas Bruce is a man who wants to express his femininity. In both of their cases, their desires are at odds with society’s gender expectations. Further, Alison and Bruce try to express this through each other—Alison by trying to make Bruce act or dress more manly, and Bruce by forcing Alison to dress more feminine than she would like. By linking this idea with Proust’s definition, Alison implicitly compares her relationship with her father to Proust’s relationship with his characters, another example of blending the fictional with the real.
In the only two-page single image spread of the book, Alison narrates over what are presumably her own fingers holding a photograph of Roy, the Bechdel family’s yard-work assistant/babysitter, lying on a bed in his underwear. Alison says the photo looks as if it was taken when she was eight, on a vacation with Bruce to the Jersey Shore while Helen was away on a trip. Alison notes that Roy looks beautiful in the picture, and wonders why she isn’t more outraged. Alison says she discovered the photo in an envelope that was labeled “Family” in Bruce’s handwriting, along with other shots from the same trip. On the borders of all the other photos “Aug 69” is written, but the “69” on the one with Roy is blotted out with a blue magic marker (presumably the same color that Alison colored the background of her illustration with.) Alison narrates that the blotting out is ineffective, and adds that it was typical of the way Bruce “juggled his public appearance and private reality.” As usual, “the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed.”
Mixed in the family photo envelope is this inappropriate picture of Roy, which Alison highlights by illustrating it in a two-page spread. This itself is a good metaphor for the way Bruce attempted to conceal his homosexuality or bisexuality: he tried his hardest to suppress or repress it, and still those around him eventually found out because of his compulsive and sometimes impulsive behavior. If Bruce was really trying to hide his affair from the world, taking a picture of his lover and putting it in the family photo envelope seems an ineffective (and perhaps self-destructive) way to do it. The half-hearted effort to conceal the dates on the pictures is also an example of Bruce trying to layer fiction over his reality—but not trying hard enough for it to fool anyone looking hard enough.
Alison notes that the negatives revealed that the dark, murky photo of Roy in the bed was taken immediately after three bright shots of Alison, Christian, and John playing on the beach. She then narrates that in Remembrance of Things Past, Proust uses a sweeping metaphor involving the two directions out of the narrator’s house that the narrator’s family could go to take a walk—Swann’s Way and The Geurmantes Way. At first, the paths are presented as opposites. But, over an image of Bruce driving Roy and his kids to pick up Helen from the city, Alison adds that, at the end of the book, Proust reveals that the two have always converged.
Just as the Geurmantes Way and Swann’s Way represent the converging of opposites, Bruce himself represents both the fictional (his image of himself) and the real (his true inner self). Though Bruce tries his best to repress his internal truth from himself and hide it from the world, the truth has a way of sneaking out.
In another memory, Helen is staying in downtown Manhattan with her friend Elly. Roy takes Alison (who is eight) and her brothers for a walk while Bruce goes up to the apartment to get Helen. Alison observes the hot, smelly city in the August heat. She illustrates her memory of a group of people in a large circle in what must have been Washington Square Park. Alison notes that the Stonewall Riots had only occurred a few weeks earlier, and wonders if her nearness to this incident could have been part of the later development of her queer gender identity. Alison acknowledges the absurdity of claiming a connection to that mythologized event, but she still thinks that the city at that time might have perhaps affected her.
Alison’s speculation about the impact of her trip to New York at age eight soon after the Stonewall Riots is an example of Alison engaging in a blurring of reality and fiction. It seems unlikely (and perhaps more of a literary conceit than a real-life one) that an event she was unaware of could have shaped her gender identity at such a young age. That said, this also shows how Alison Bechdel believes that gender identity and expectations about gender can form extremely early. This is echoed in the Butch truck driver incident when Alison is four years old.
Either way, Alison says the memory of that afternoon serves as a parallel between Alison and her parents’ young adulthood a decade earlier. Alison imagines Bruce taking the bus up from college to visit Helen in the city. She wonders how much Helen’s surroundings factored into Bruce’s attraction to her. Though Alison has never been inside her mother’s old building in New York, she’s nostalgic for it as if she’d lived there. Over many visits to the city, Alison grew familiar with the neighborhood. Helen told Alison about a bar called Chumley’s that she and Bruce used to frequent. Years later, Alison tries to enter the establishment with a group of lesbian friends and is told by a bouncer that the cover is 15 dollars. Later, Alison realizes the bouncer was refusing her entry because he saw her as an undesirable customer.
Alison’s nostalgia for her mother’s building is another example of her engagement with the fictional in place of the real. Alison would rather imagine her mother happy, open and free in New York City than confront the current version of Helen, cooped up and dissatisfied in Beech Creek. Additionally, Alison’s rejection from Chumley’s bar as a young woman in some ways becomes a badge of honor she wears, a confirmation of her outward gender identity that she is certainly not hiding or repressing (though she is being oppressed because of it).
Over images of Alison getting approached by a lesbian in a dance club and receiving a pamphlet instead of an invitation to dance, Alison narrates that she moved to New York City after college expecting a community, but instead found the Village a cold, isolated place. Helen once shared a glimpse of life in the village in the old days, saying that she and her friends would hear lesbians fighting down the street. This causes Alison to take an interest in lesbian pulp fiction from the fifties, learning of bar raids and illegal cross-dressing, and to wonder whether she would have had the guts to be an outward Butch back then.
Just as she immerses herself in lesbian literature while going through a sexual awakening in college, Alison decides to try to understand her mother’s true story by delving into fictional and historical literary works. She also contemplates the question of repression vs. openness in the context of history—though Alison is open and upfront about her gender identity in modern times, she wonders if she would have hidden it in the 1950s (just as Bruce did).
Alison notes that the original title of Proust’s second volume of Remembrance of Things Past literally translates to “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” but the official translation of “Within a Budding Grove” shifts the emphasis from the erotic to the botanical. However, Alison also notes that Proust’s prose often illustrates the similarities between the body and botany, exemplified by the budding of Alison’s breasts at age twelve. Not only did Alison not want to grow breasts, but she was unaware of how much they’d hurt, and also how impact with the flesh could be painful. Once, when asking her father for a custom shirt, he said they would have to measure Alison’s “appendages,” causing her to drop the subject.
The idea of translation and mistranslation seems to hint at language’s possibilities for misinterpretation and omission. Alison’s body transforms itself against her will, just as Proust’s title is translated against (or without) his will. Alison is as incapable of controlling society’s expectations of her as a young girl as she is of stopping her breasts from budding—Alison will later learn that all she can do as a young lesbian coming-of-age is acknowledge how she really feels and do her best to live an open, honest life and not repress herself to make others more comfortable.
When Alison was 10, two years after the vacation with Roy, her father started hanging out with Bill, a new young man who helped out with the yard-work. Bill was the outdoors type and kept a knife at his side. So, instead of going to the beach, Bill and the rest of the family went camping without Helen. The plan was to go out to the Bechdel family’s cabin in the forest, called the Bullpen. Alison and Bruce got the key from Uncle Fred, who also gave Bruce a rolled-up paper item to hold for him. While waiting in the car, Alison decided to peep at the poster, despite Bruce telling her not to look at it because it was “dirty,” and it turned out to be a calendar with pictures of naked women. Upon seeing the image Alison said she’d felt as if she’d been stripped naked herself.
Bruce telling Alison the poster is “dirty,” but then not telling her what the poster depicts or why it should be considered dirty is a good example of Bruce favoring vagueness and not being open when it might be easy to do so. Alison seeing this picture and it making her feel so ashamed is an example of Alison rejecting her own gender identity and feelings while coming of age without consciously realizing why she’s doing it—which is, of course, because of society’s, and her father’s, expectations which run counter to how she feels.
Once they got to the cabin, Alison’s brothers discovered the calendar. They were also extremely excited to see gigantic construction equipment used to strip mine parts of the forest. That afternoon, they all drove out to a mine. The gigantic shovel wasn’t in operation, but the operator let them inside of it. There, Alison was astonished by what struck her as a bizarre coincidence—on the wall there was a similar pinup calendar. As the operator showed them around the shovel, Alison felt a strong urge not to let the construction worker know she was a girl. She told her brother John to call her “Albert instead of Alison.” John ignored her, but looking back Alison’s strategy struck her as a “feat of Proustian transposition.”
Alison’s brothers openly scour the naked woman’s body while Alison became ashamed after catching a single peep—an example of how having a heterosexual identity allows for more open exploration of one’s sexuality, whereas Alison immediately shoves down her non-heteronormative feelings. This can be seen further in Alison’s request to have her brothers call her “Albert” – in the masculine space of the construction site, Alison is more comfortable being identified as a fictional male persona than as herself, just as Proust fictionally hid his homosexual feelings through heterosexual characters.
The next day, Bruce had to go back to town for a funeral, so Bill showed Alison and her brothers how to shoot his .22 caliber gun. None of them could pull the trigger. Disappointed, the kids went to the spring to retrieve cans of soda, where they were shocked to see a gigantic snake in the spring. They ran back to Bill, who grabbed his gun and led the kids back to the snake. Alison was “relieved and somewhat embarrassed” when upon their return the snake was gone. On the drive home, Alison was melancholy, feeling as if she felt she “had failed some unspoken initiation rite…”
In this sequence with Bill, Alison failing to be able to shoot the gun feels to her like she’s failed some kind of tribal “initiation rite,” though this would more likely be an initiation for boys instead of girls. In this case, her lack of ability to complete a physical task makes her feel metaphorically more like a boy than a man, or, perhaps more accurately, more like a girl than a man, and so the possibility of her growing up to be the masculine being of her dreams seems less possible.
Alison wonders, over an image of Bruce walking across the road with an oncoming truck approaching, what if Bruce really had seen a snake that day? Alison says snakes look like a phallus, “yet a more ancient and universal symbol of the feminine principle would be hard to come by.” Alison believes that perhaps what’s so unsettling about snakes is this “nonduality.” Similarly, the beginning of Alison’s honesty also coincided with the end of Bruce’s lie. This is because Alison had been lying too, since she was four or five. Bruce had taken her on a business trip to Philadelphia, and in the city, the two of them saw a shorthaired female trucker wearing men’s clothing. Alison stared at the trucker, recognizing her “with a surge of joy.” Alison says that Bruce recognized her, too, but not in a good way, asking Alison with a sour face if that woman is what Alison wanted to look like. So, Alison lied and said “no.” However, “the vision of the truck-driving bulldyke sustained” Alison through many years, just perhaps as it haunted her father.
Snakes can serve as symbols for both femininity and masculinity. Alison is a girl who exhibits masculine qualities, so perhaps she sometimes feels like a snake. Also, Alison speculates that a snake is what might have ended Bruce’s life. In an ironic pairing of Bruce and Alison’s internal truths, the beginning of Alison’s honesty—her coming out of the closet—happens in extremely close proximity to Bruce’s death, so it almost feels to Alison like Bruce had to die—and live a repressed life—in order for Alison to live a more open life. The incident with the trucker is Alison’s first repression when she comes up against society’s (and her father’s) expectations of her—this comes full circle when she un-represses herself by openly coming out of the closet to her parents in college.
After Bruce died, an updated translation of Proust was published, and the book was retitled In Search of Lost Time. Alison believes that what’s lost in this translation is “the complexity of loss itself.” In the same box where Alison found the photo of Roy, she also finds a photo of Bruce at about the same age. He’s wearing a women’s bathing suit. Could it have been a fraternity prank? Maybe, but the picture is more graceful than silly. In another picture, Bruce sunbathes on the roof of his frat house just after he turned twenty-two. Alison wonders if the photographer was Bruce’s lover. Next to that image in the book Alison puts a photo of herself on a fire escape at her twenty-first birthday, and notes that “the girl who took this polaroid” was her lover. Alison adds that the exterior setting, pained grin, flexible wrists, and even the angle of shadow across her and her father’s faces in the two photos is “about as close as a translation can get.”
The re-translation of Proust’s work from ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ to ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is the opposite of what Alison Bechdel is trying to accomplish in Fun Home. Alison isn’t searching for what’s been lost, but rather remembering her past and trying to re-contextualize her coming-of-age with the new information she’s received as an adult about her father. Here Alison notes how fiction, even the best of it, can often fall short of representing the complexities and depth of real-life experiences like true loss. The examination of the photos also hints at the inscrutability of the past—though Alison can speculate about who took this photo of her father and why, speculate is all she can do—she can never know for certain.