Bruce Bechdel is obsessed with keeping up appearances so that the outside world perceives him as something different than he really is. The first chapter of Fun Home is named “Old father, old artificer” (a quote from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and in it Alison details her father’s obsessive focus on restoring the family’s home to the point that she calls him “a Daedalus of décor.” Indeed, just as Daedalus in the Greek myth created a labyrinth to encase the Minotaur from which “escape was impossible,” Bruce’s relentless restoration of the family’s old Gothic Revival house is correspondingly tyrannical and entrapping, so that visitors of the house often get lost amidst its many mirrors and endless corridors. Further, Alison believes that her father intentionally designs her house’s labyrinthine layout, full of mirrors, statues, and distractions of all kinds, in order to “conceal” what he sees as his profound shame – his homosexuality. Similarly, Bruce is obsessed with his own manicured appearance, and a stray comment from one of his kids at breakfast about his wardrobe can send him scurrying back to his room to change.
Bruce’s penchant for artifice causes Alison to develop distaste for any sort of “ornament” because it obscures function and, worse than that, glitzy decorations seem to Alison to be a kind of lie. Building on this, Alison believes her father uses his “skillful artifice” to not only hide the truth about himself, but to actively make himself appear to be something he’s not. Just as Bruce uses bronzer to make his skin appear more perfect than it really is, he uses his family and flashy home to make himself appear to be an ideal father and husband, while in reality he cheats on his wife, neglects his kids, and has affairs with teenage boys who are sometimes his students.
Though the Bechdels really do live together in their museum-like house all through Alison’s childhood, it is clear to her from an early age that something real and vital is missing from the household, which Alison decides is “an elasticity, a margin for error.” In other words: because Alison’s father only makes it seem like he is a loyal husband and father, the artificial household lacks the presence of true warmth, trust, and closeness, and any “error” feels as if it might make the whole thing come crashing down. Alison describes a moment when she and her brothers are sitting in front of a Christmas tree with Bruce watching as “a sort of still life with children,” which, in many ways, is how Bruce always treats his family – as if they are props for Bruce to place around the house, intended to lend him an air of (false) authenticity.
Bruce gives Alison the surface of what a father can provide, but none of the depth beneath it, so that Alison feels the pain of Bruce’s absence long before he passes away. Bruce’s death, too, is in itself an example of substance giving way to a shinier, but entirely artificial narrative—friends and family who attend Bruce’s funeral lament him as “a good man” because he appeared to be, whereas Alison and her family know that Bruce’s hidden reality was far more complex and unpleasant than he had constructed it to seem.
To Alison, artifice, when used to deceive others, is indistinguishable from a lie. And Alison uses her art – of which Fun Home is a product – for an opposite purpose: to reveal the truth. The way that Alison constantly interrupts her own narrative to make clear that it is just her own subjective understanding of what happened, subject to her own limited knowledge and the failures of memory, reinforces her belief in truth rather than artifice. By cutting into her narrative she never allows it to become artifice, to create the illusion of an impossible objective truth—rather, she ensures that Fun Home tells her experience, her truth.
Artifice Quotes in Fun Home
My father could spin garbage… into gold. He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand flourish… he was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor.
Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. Sort of like a still life with children.
I developed a contempt for useless ornament… If anything, they obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies. My father…used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. That is to say, impeccable.
…his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence… But I ached as if he were already gone.
The line that dad drew between reality and fiction was indeed a blurry one. To understand this, one had only to enter his library… And if my father liked to imagine himself as a nineteenth century aristocrat overseeing his estate from behind the leather-topped mahogany and brass second-empire desk… did that require such a leap of the imagination? Perhaps affectation can be so thoroughgoing, so authentic in its details, that it stops being pretense… and becomes, for all practical purposes, real.
I think what was so alluring to my father about Fitzgerald’s stories was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life. Such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade. And living with it took a toll on the rest of us.
I employ these allusions… not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.
Our sun rose over Bald Eagle Mountain’s hazy blue flank. And it set behind the strip mine-pocked plateau… with similar perversity, the sparkling creek that coursed down from the plateau and through our town was crystal clear precisely because it was polluted… wading in this fishless creek and swooning at the salmon sky, I learned firsthand that most elemental of all ironies… that, as Wallace Stevens put it in my mom’s favorite poem, “Death is the mother of beauty.”
It was not… a triumphal return. Home, as I had known it, was gone. Some crucial part of the structure seemed to be missing, like in dreams I would have later where termites had eaten through all the floor joists.