Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Fun Home, Artifice, and James Joyce

kgould's picture

I feel like I've read Fun Home more than twice, but I've checked my course history a few times now and as far as I can tell, it was only listed in Graphic Novels and James Joyce. But maybe it's just that kind of book, the kind that clings to you and remains clear in your mind. Or maybe my memory is more fallible than I anticipated. Uh oh.

So I first read Fun Home two years ago in Graphic Novels, alongside other graphic novels like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Watchmen by Alan Moore, and Maus by Art Spiegelman. While we read all of our texts in the context of what made a "graphic novel," how the genre was composed, and the intricacies of combining text and illustration (looking at it critically and culturally), we did look at each text in its own lens. For Fun Home, this was the lens of gender and sexuality, memoir, and the utilization of fictional narrative in non-fiction writing. 

While I did look deeply into the lenses we set up in the class, I was really interested in the actual construction the works, especially Bechdel's graphic novel because of her obsession with detail. Her father was obsessed with detail, with artifice, a Dedalus in his own right (or a minotaur...), constructing their house, their family, who he was and who they were-- who they were supposed to be as they functioned together. While the writing in the graphic novel is highly allegorical, the details of the illustrations are also amazingly efficient at alluding to and suggesting certain themes and modes that become more apparent over time (and as the book is read over and over again).

Remember that none of the little details in the illustrations are filler or meaningless. Everything is there because Bechdel saw it there, in her mind or in the way she wanted to show it. The titles on the books on the shelf, the times on the clocks, the pictures and paintings hung on walls--they are all there for a reason. There is no superfluous stuff there. It all has meaning, regardless of whether or not it was really in her childhood home--or if she put it there for the reader.

Bechdel is, in her own way, an artificer, going to great lengths to recreate the layout of her house, the patterns in the wallpaper (check out page 60), the reappearance of Sunbeam Bread all throughout the novel, the use of greek mythology, and all of the little facets and illusions she gives to James Joyce's work, Ulysses, from which Fun Home is shaped. 

Which brings us to the next setting where I read Fun Home, in the James Joyce course, where I have to admit that Joyce's work was so mind boggling and all-consuming that I can't say that I paid as much attention to Bechdel's details as before. But now, after reading Ulysses, the novel after which Fun Home is modeled, there are so many new connections that I didn't, or couldn't, see before. Ulysses is a beguiling, modernist tale of a young man and an older man, a son and a father (although they are not actually related, save as acquaintances), traveling through their lives in pursuit of--what? Meaning? Purpose? Understanding? There are connections between them, in behavior and action, in their relationship, in the paths that they take. And while these paths may intersect, they are still delineated, most of the book focusing on Bloom and his own ruminations on almost everything... The book is about almost anything you can think. The messages are multifarious and divergent-- trying to pin down something to tell you makes my mind reel.

Mind you, Ulysses is modeled after the Odyssey which is, itself, shaped from greek mythos, and so on. Ulysses holds thousands of illusions and allegories to other works, details and hints that make it the magnificent work that it's been recognized as. So when Bechdel says that she modeled her graphic novel after James Joyce's famous novel, that's no small undertaking. Bechdel's way of telling her story and the story of her father (as far as she knows), is emulating the stories of Steven and Bloom in Ulysses. The problems of love, life, living, education, understanding-- they are all reflective of James Joyce's novel. Even homoeroticism, gender and sexuality, it's all there. Eerily mirrored between a 1918 modernist novel (fiction) and a 2006 graphic novel memoir (non-fiction).

Oh god. My brain...


jaranda's picture

Details and OCD

I thought the detailing in Fun Home, which you noticed on page 60, was an interesting point throughout the book.  I brought up Bechdel's OCD in class, which she talks about around the middle of the book.  She considered her left shoe her father and her right shoe her mother, and she would spend many minutes trying to line them up so as not to show one preference over the other.  Comparing her OCD to her relationship with her parents is interesting.  Clearly she had different relationships with each of them, but it seems like she tried to make them equal, as is reflected in the frame on page 137.


Was Bechdel just trying to be accurate in the portrayal of her life or was this just a new outlet for her OCD? Details, like the house's wallpaper and the recurring Sunbeam Bread are both good examples of her precise nature. The details could also be a way for Bechdel to foreshadow future events. The class talked about how the book Anna Karenina was shown on the first page of Fun Home to make a connection to the opening line, which talks about happy families being alike in their own unhappy ways, but I think it might also relate to Bechdel’s opinion of her father’s later death. Anna Karenina threw herself in front of a train, which I think could be similar to the way she thinks her father might have jumped in front of the bread truck. Reading this graphic narrative was an interesting experience because of the details she included. Obviously the subtle clues at what was going to happen later in the book would have to have been interpreted differently if Bechdel had just written a typical memoir.   

veritatemdilexi's picture

Brevity-The odd gift of the comic book

 I have to confess that I set fully prepared to not like "Fun Home".  I was so opposed to the idea of a comic book novel but I was soon dissuaded.  I have never read, looked, or even thought about a comic book.  It seems though that I have overlooked a genre that is very appealing to me, do to the fact that the ability of the author to ramble on is severly limited, not the Bechdel was at the risk of rambling.  The fact that all of what the author is writing is limited to captions and a brief description at the top of some of the boxes forces the author to be deliberate about what she is trying to say. In some instances Bechdel choose to write nothing at all, leaving a picture for the reader to contemplate.  The style of the "tragicomic" is more interesting to this reader than the subject of the novel, not that it is an uninteresting story by any stretch of the imagination.  Anyone who can use Camus and Dr. Spock in the same novel while representing their ideologies correctly is clearly adroit.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
10 + 6 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.