The subtitle of Fun Home – “A Family Tragicomic” – captures a number of aspects of the book. First, it captures the fact that the story of Bruce in the memoir is a tragedy told in the format of a graphic novel – a comic. The book is, literally, a “tragicomic.” On a deeper level, it evokes the way that the memoir treats death as both tragically life-alternating and as comedic, in the sense that even terrible events can come to seem absurdly and ridiculously humorous.
Bruce’s premature death, and likely suicide, hangs heavily over the book’s narrative, while the phrase “Fun Home” is the Bechdel children’s not-entirely-ironic nickname for the family-run funeral home that Bruce inherits from his father. Alison and her siblings goof around in and even sleep over at the funeral home, causing them to have a far more casual and cavalier attitude toward death than most children. By the end of the book, Alison’s relationship toward death in Fun Home seems to be two-fold: though Alison is more cognizant of (and therefore desensitized to) the realities of death in a general sense because of the family-run “fun home,” when a death occurs close to her, it is even more difficult to process than usual because she is so used to treating death casually that she represses her initial feelings of grief and only lets them out after a long time has passed (and perhaps she is even still dealing with them while writing and drawing this memoir). Further, Alison’s experience sheds light on the fact that death is inherently absurd and incomprehensible, which makes it harder rather than easier to comprehend when it finally strikes close to home. After returning home in the wake of her father’s death, Alison and her brother John greet each other with wide, horrible grins, embodying how they’re incapable of showing or perhaps even feeling the typical sadness associated with losing a parent.
Alison also suggests that, as a mortician, Bruce is even more in tune with the cold realities of death, as it is his job to embalm the bodies when they arrive at the funeral home. In regard to Bruce, Alison doubts the veracity of a famous Albert Camus quote from The Myth of Sisyphus stating that we all live as if we don’t know we’re going to die. In fact, Alison believes Bruce may have been all too familiar with death, and his proximity to it could have tempted him to cause his own.
But Fun Home isn’t solely a book about the Bechdel’s funeral home. It’s also a book about their life, with a particular focus on the old Gothic Revival house that her father obsessively renovates and decorates. This house is itself something of a circus “fun house,” in the way it’s labyrinthine corridors and mirror-filled decorations often cause visitors to get lost. And the term “fun house” also applies to the home in the way the structure is itself an embodiment of the internal walls and illusions that Bruce has built up to hide the homosexual identity that he finds shameful. Late in the book, Alison describes Bruce’s life of sexual shame, his obsessive hiding of his “erotic truth,” as being a kind of death. Seen in this way, the family home also functions as a kind of funeral home for Bruce and the family that exists around the lie hiding his inner truth. Even as they lived a real life in that house, it was a life marked in part by an absence or kind of death at its center, and so as both life and death the story of her family and her father that Bechdel tells is neither just tragic nor comic. It’s both.
Death and the Tragicomic ThemeTracker
Death and the Tragicomic Quotes in Fun Home
…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.
Joan drove home with me and we arrived that evening. My little brother John and I greeted each other with ghastly, uncontrollable grins.
You would also think that a childhood spent in such close proximity to the workaday incidentals of death would be good preparation. That when someone you knew actually died, maybe you’d get to skip a phase or two of the grieving process… But in fact, all the years spent visiting gravediggers, joking with burial-vault salesmen, and teasing my brothers with crushed vials of smelling salts only made my own father’s death more incomprehensible.
I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents’ tragedy… I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit.
What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought? He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt.