In Fun Home, the Bechdel family constantly, and perhaps compulsively, engages with fiction. But Alison, Bruce, and Helen each engage with fiction in different ways. These differences in the characters’ relationships to fiction don’t end with their interactions with books and plays. Rather, those differences are suggestive about the three characters’ different relationships to reality, to the ways that they understand, escape, or try to shift or hide the real world around them.
The number and degree of literary references in Fun Home is astounding, and these references are not simply one off quotes. As the writer of her memoir, Alison weaves into the fabric of her book references to the myth of Daedulus and Icarus, Daedulus and the Minotaur, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, and to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. She examines how the world around her is similar and different from the events and characters in these stories, and uses those similarities and differences to tease out an understanding of her father, mother, and the world, working out her understanding of reality through its relation to fiction and literature.
In college, for instance, Alison realizes that she is a lesbian while reading a book in the library, not through any physical experience. It may seem strange that Alison would come to engage with fiction in this way, since as a child she wrote her own type of “fiction” in the form of her diary, which was defined as much by what it obscured or left out as what it truthfully included, and which was further marked by Alison’s disbelief in any kind of objective truth as symbolized by her obsessive inclusion of “she thinks” before (or even on top of) any statement. In the diary, Alison used fiction as an evasion, as a way to hide or deny truth or reality. What’s important to note, though, is that as an adult, when Alison has come to terms with who she is as a lesbian, she nonetheless remains somewhat skeptical of “objective truth,” a stance that isn’t so surprising given that as an adult she learns the reality of what she only sensed as a child: that her family life was built upon secrets and evasions: her father’s sexuality and his string of homosexual affairs. In Fun Home, Alison is up front that she doesn’t and can’t know if her father actually did or didn’t kill himself, whether coming out did or didn’t play a role in his death, if her father was gay or bisexual, or even during the brief single moment when she and her father discussed their sexuality which of them was playing the “parent.” Understanding her life in its comparison to fiction gives Alison a way not to come to definitive answers, but to frame questions and understand the possibilities of reality. It allows her to grapple with the fact that she can’t know the absolute “truth” of her father, but she can still build an understanding of him. And, similarly, she can build an understanding of herself.
In contrast to Alison’s use of fiction and literature to understand reality, Helen seems to use fiction to escape it. Helen’s behavior is exemplified in how she prepares for her performances as an actress in local theater productions. She throws herself completely into the roles, learning not just her own lines but everyone else’s as well. This perfectionist tendency pervades all throughout Helen’s life, causing her to sometimes act neglectfully towards her family. Further, though, as the book progresses it starts to seem clear that Helen’s devotion to her theater roles is at least partially driven by the fact that, through theater and the chance to inhabit someone else, Helen can ignore and therefore live with the reality that her husband is cheating on her with underage men, rather than do something in reality to try to change it or address it. And, further still, the book suggests that Helen is playing even her own life as a kind of role, acting the part of the happy wife to a good family man as if it were true.
Bruce treads the blurriest line between reality and fiction, so much so that Alison once compares him to a poor-man’s Jay Gatsby: Bruce imagines himself as an important aristocrat overseeing his estate, and so he decorates the Bechdel family house in order to project the (fictional) fanciful image he has of himself. In turn, this causes other people to perceive Bruce as a good, upstanding, if a bit eccentric heterosexual family man, while in reality he is erratic, rage-filled, and cheats on his wife with underage men who are often his students. So, Bruce comes to represent the fine line between fiction and lies, which, in Alison’s view, is all about presentation—Bruce puts himself forward as something he is not, and thus he steps over the line so that his Good Husband And Father mask becomes a suffocating, shame-shielding lie that invades every part of his life, including the design of his house.
Complicating this a bit, however, is the reality that throughout Alison’s life, an engagement with fiction is what ultimately brings she and Bruce closer together than at any other point in their relationship. Alison enrolling in Bruce’s English class in high school leads to the discovery that she loves the same kinds of books he does, and later, their exchange of homosexual works of literature near the end of Bruce’s life (he gives her Colette’s autobiography, and she gives him Flying by Kate Millett) leads to their only frank, if dissatisfying, real-life exchange about their respective sexualities. So even as Bruce is constantly engaged in an effort to turn reality into a kind of fiction (or, perhaps, to assert a fiction as reality), fiction serves as a bridge, however meager, of truth and connection between him and his daughter.
The treatment of reality and fiction in Fun Home, then, is complex. For Alison, there exists a clear separation between the two, but accessing that universal truth is nearly impossible since Alison acknowledges that memory is imperfect and she can only speak to her own perceptions. While Bruce continually uses fiction to consciously hide the truth, Alison is always cognizant (sometimes to the point of compulsion) of pointing out that her perception of reality isn’t necessarily the exact truth, though it’s as truthful as she can account for. Alison, then, uses fiction as a framework by which to come to grips with her parents and herself, Helen uses it to escape from her own reality, and Bruce uses it as a false mask to hide his reality from the outside world. In all of these cases, fiction does not, and can not, change reality—and one can argue that Bruce’s tragedy is that he believes it can. (Which is also interesting in that one can argue that this same misperception leads to the tragedy of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby – and so even in its themes about fiction, Fun Home is entwined with other works of fiction.)
Fiction and Reality ThemeTracker
Fiction and Reality 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.
It was somewhere during those early years that I began confusing us with The Addams Family…The captions eluded me, as did the ironic reversal of suburban conformity. Here were the familiar dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings of my own home.
My father’s death was a queer business—queer in every sense of that multivalent word…but most compellingly at the time, his death was bound up for me with the one definition conspicuously missing from our mammoth Webster’s.
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.
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.
My parents met, I eventually extracted from my mother, in a performance of The Taming of the Shrew… It’s a troubling play, of course. The willful Katherine’s spirit is broken by the mercenary, domineering Petruchio… Even in those prefeminist days, my parents must have found this relationship model to be problematic. They would probably have been appalled at the suggestion that their own marriage would play out in a similar way.
Proust would have intense, emotional friendships with fashionable women… but it was young, often straight, men with whom he fell in love. He would also fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender—the narrator’s lover Albertine, for example, is often read as a portrait of Proust’s beloved chauffeur/secretary, Alfred.
As the man showed us around, it seemed imperative that he not know I was a girl… “John! C’mere! … Call me Albert instead of Alison.” My brother ignored me. But looking back, my stratagem strikes me as a precocious feat of Proustian transposition…
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.”
…The most arresting thing about the tape is its evidence of both my parents at work, intent and separate… It’s childish, perhaps, to grudge them the sustenance of their creative solitude. But it was all that sustained them, and thus was all-consuming. From their example, I learned quickly to feed myself.
…I had to kiss each of my stuffed animals—and not just in a perfunctory way. Then I’d bring one of the three bears to bed with me, alternating nightly between mother, father, and baby… I should point out that no one had kissed me good night in years.
…How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true? My simple, declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst. All I could speak for were my own perceptions, and perhaps not even those.
This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger, national innocence may seem trite. But it was one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during those strange, hot months.
In a photo taken a week before the play opened, she’s literally holding herself together. But in her publicity shot as Lady Bracknell, she’s a Victorian dominatrix to rival Wilde himself.
I had recently discovered some of Dad’s old clothes. Putting on the formal shirt with its studs and cufflinks was a nearly mystical pleasure, like finding myself fluent in a language I’d never been taught. It felt too good to actually be good.
We grew closer after I went away to college. Books—the ones assigned for my English class—continued to serve as our currency.
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.