Amy Goh #260354243
Professor Sean Carney
15th February 2012
The Architectural Maze in Fun Home: Mirrors, Shadows, and the Space of Memory
Fun Home, as its namesake suggests, is a memoir built spatially around the confusing corridors of memory. The book, like the Bechdel house, is a “fun house of mirrors” (Watson 123) cast full of shadows, in addition to being the stage for Alison’s story. Each chapter resembles a maze Alison creates in order to transform the seeming meaninglessness of her father’s death into a meaningful pattern. Or, in her words, to “link (her) senseless personal loss to a more coherent narrative” (Bechdel 196). Like an origami box, each chapter folds a different dimension of their relationship into a larger structure that only rises fully-fledged with the reader’s construction of each individual part into a whole. With each crease, a different connection is forged between her father’s death and her present life as an artist
. Alison’s memoir, however, exists in an uneasy relation to her father’s ‘art’- the Bechdel family home; an infrastructure which, metaphorically, represents a shared familial heritage. By creating and publishing Fun Home, it can be said Alison attempts two paradoxical acts: a memorial of her father, as well as a symbolic Oedipal killing of the looming patriarchal figure the shadow of the house represents.
The act of telling the family memoir can be considered an act of attempted narrative mastery. By writing Fun Home, Alison revises the ‘family story’ to include her own struggle as an art-maker. By examining the book’s “architecture of narration” (Watson 124)- how it is both like and unlike Theseus’s labyrinth
- and exploring the various forms the ‘minotaur’s shadow’
takes on, a complex portrait of Alison rises through the ashes of her father’s death. This portrait is more akin to a mirror artfully placed at an angle, revealing the uncanny congruencies between Alison and her father’s seemingly divergent selves.
Nebulous, shadowy presences often lurk about the maze-like walls in each chapter of Fun Home
. This shadow takes on various forms throughout the novel: the larger-than-life father who reverberates with a mythic resonance, the Bechdel house, and eventually Alison herself. This recurrent shadow can be taken as a loose metaphor for the disconnect between reality and perception present in all representational forms, an anxiety that continually assaults Alison both psychologically and artistically. By undertaking to write a history of the Bechdel family, Alison attempts an act of self-mastery by creating a ‘fixed’ self on the page. However, she does so while having to contend with the mobility of identity and the violence her narrative may do to her family members. Here, the house is the mythic stage linking blood and creativity from which the self attempts to emerge underneath the “generational, personal, psychosexual, and political entanglements of family life” (124). It is the site on which the familial drama takes place, in addition to being the foundation Alison builds her story upon.
Alison’s father Bruce experiences a similar internal need to balance his constructed self with his ‘intrinsic’ self. His architectural ambitions exists in tandem to his ‘artificial’ performance of heterosexual gender identity. Being of an older generation, he perceives society to be segmented on the foundational level. Thus, he chooses to fit into the normative social structure by ‘compartmentalizing’ his interiority to accommodate the social standard. However, this is always done in tension to his repressed individuality, which manifests in his obsessive decoration of the house. The various shadows within the book are a signal of the ‘trace’ or disconnect between Bruce’s two selves. Linguistically, the title of the first chapter “Old Father, Old Artificer” mirrors this, showing the relation between the genealogical- which cannot be controlled- and the creative- a controlled pursuit. The title holds a multiplicity of meanings: Bruce is the aged father (to Alison), the conscious creator of his identity (to himself) and a skilled craftsman, building and managing the family home. Like the visual trope of the shadow, Alison reveals that language is malleable, capable of being molded according to the meaning-maker’s intent.
The first appearance of Bruce’s shadow on page 12 as he reprimands Alison for breaking a lamp emphasizes Alison’s father’s monstrous, minotaur-like aspect. As a child, sensuous reality is amplified: her father appears larger-than-life and incomprehensible to her childish mind. However, on page 7, panel 4, we are shown another image of Alison’s father, this time silhouetted by the house. In this image, the shadow of the mansion is an extension of her father’s personality, an element of his psyche he constructs to gain agency over his own convoluted interiority. The elaborate interiors of the Bechdel’s Gothic Restoration house exemplifies the tension Alison perceives between Bruce’s private and public personas. It is an anachronistic building, signifying an era of social repression. Incarnated in ‘70s Suburbia, it becomes a cipher to a milieu that has lost its significance for the younger generation, but still continues to haunt the present like an oppressive shadow. Bruce’s architectural shadow, here, expresses the impenetrability of Bruce’s psyche to Alison, as well as a fracture in time: it is the spatial manifestation of an age-old conflict which Alison senses, but never fully comprehends.
On page 12, the shadow morphs again, taking on the shape of the Bechdel house’s portico. Alison leaves the silhouetted pillars of her family house and walks into a scene of open fields only for the landscape to merge back into the structured porticos of the Bechdel house. Even though she seeks to escape her father’s influence- represented by the sombre pillars of the Bechdel house-, her efforts initially fail. Lastly, on panel 3 of page 21, the shadow takes on another meaning. It sings Alison to sleep in the shape of her father, easing her into the nebulous dream realm. Bruce, here, stands at the threshold between darkness and light and Alison, nervously, tells him not to turn out the light in the hallway. In this act, she both embraces his inscrutable interiority and implores him not to abandon his role as caretaker. Within the first chapter alone, the shadow metamorphoses from being a menacing presence to being the harbinger of the repressed self, to being a mediator between familiar and foreign realms. Her father, from the very beginning, is multi-dimensional. He is shown not only as the negligent paterfamilias, but also as an impassioned creator and a benevolent father guiding his children into life’s darker regions. By refusing to inscribe a set meaning to the shadow trope, Alison accounts for the multiple facets of reality, allowing the reader to build his associations and recollections upon the vehicle of the metaphor. Just as the political is always personal, the autobiographical can be paradoxically collective. Similar to a shadow show, Alison’s comic relies on an “interplay of views… in the reflexive exchange of hand, eye, and thought” (Watson 124), the strings of which she hands to the reader.
Fun Home itself resembles a piece of architecture, mirroring the Bechdel home not only literally in its namesake, but also figuratively in form, content, and methodology. The act of opening the pages of the book is akin to opening the doors and windows of the Bechdel home. By flipping the book artifact open, we enter spatially into the Alison’s narrative maze. On the textual level, the pages function like the corridors of the Bechdel house, hiding family heirlooms (archival photographs) buried in the dust of disuse and silhouettes that distort as soon as the eye seeks to possess it. These abundant human and architectural shadows blend the figurative and the literal, the subjective and the objective, the mythic and the intimately personal. They make binaries non-existent: an image can be read both ways. The act of reading is, with Fun Home, always a collaborative effort between reader and writer. While it offers a privileged glimpse into the components that make up Alison’s artistic and psychological self, it also calls upon a readerly engagement wherein one has to piece together, like Alison, a story out of archival photos and literary fragments in an attempt to make sense of the past chapters in light of the present.
Alison’s motley technique is a manifestation of a need to tell her story using whatever means possible. Like her father, Alison is only able to express herself using the tools her father hands her- in acts of building spaces. Just as the Bechdel home is constructed from furniture collected from varied sources (some literally from the garbage heap), Alison accumulates literary, mythic and photographic references to build a fictive reality. She is a conscious creator using “descriptive devices” (67), rather than mortar, frames and furniture. Her use of the comic format combines time and space, so architectural corridors become symbolic intersections in which characters meet alternative selves, figures from the past, or their own memories. By arranging spaces upon the page in a deliberate manner, Alison expresses the interiority of characters through their interaction with the spaces they inhabit within the panels. Like her father, Alison seeks connections with those around her through the act of creating, “retelling personal histories that replicate the non-linear, open-ended, associative clusters of memory itself” (Watson 127).
Alison also uses the architectural metaphor to depict her personal struggle to express emotion, a trait her father shares. The child Alison is unable to express her love for her father both because he is emotionally inaccessible and because she lacks the tools to do so. She builds this “embarrassment” about expressing feelings spatially, as “part (of) a tiny scale model of (her) father’s more fully developed self loathing” which “inhabited (her) house pervasively and invisibly” (Bechdel 20). Ironically, the defensive wall Bruce builds around himself incarnates in his daughter in her attempt to express emotion. It is one of the threads connecting her to her father within the network of personal and spatial relations of the house, in which her father will always be a corridor away.
The rest of Fun Home explores this dialectical connection and fracture between Alison her father. A tenuous thread persists through the web of each chapter connecting Alison’s life to her father’s death like a double helix. As Alison concludes later on, “you could say that my father’s end was my beginning/ or more precisely, that the end of his life coincided with the beginning of my truth” (117). Although Alison states she was “spartan to my father’s Athenian/ modern to his Victorian/ Butch to his nelly/ utilitarian to his aesthete” (15), these are, in the end, permutations of the same binary, only in reverse order. Alison is her father’s mirror image. The book’s structure mimics this: it begins with the mythic image of the father holding up his daughter
which is then inverted at the book’s end, mimicking the cyclical temporality of Alison’s narrative: things inevitably end up where they begin.
The scene in front of the mirrors on page 98-99 visualizes this relation. In this panel, the Bechdel family is shown dressing up in front of a massive mirror that takes up most of the frame. They are choosing the way they want to present themselves to the world. Bruce’s dainty adjustment of his tie is mirrored by Alison’s defiant frown and boyish stance. An arrow points to Bruce’s coat and to Alison’s dress: his is velvet, hers is the “least girly dress in the store”. Furthermore, Alison and her father are dressed diametrically opposite: she is in white, he is in a dark suit. The father/daughter duo are shown as “inverts… inversions of one another” (98) not only linguistically, but visually. Linguistic expression, here, is inseparable from outward displays of dress and behaviour. One’s personality is both expressed verbally and performed socially. Alison goes beyond the homogenous definition of ‘invert’ as ‘homosexual’ to a larger distinction that accounts for the differences and similarities between Alison and her father. Even though they are visually (in dress and stance) and compositionally (upon the page) presented as opposites, they are symmetrical in the method in which they choose to stage their life and express their interiority.
In addition, Bruce, Alison and her mother do not look at the mirror, but at each other through the mirror. The mother, here, is an intruder into the father/daughter relationship- she is posed at the edge, as a mere footnote in the familial drama. She states dryly “you’re going to upstage the bride in that suit” (98) at the edge of the page, whereas Bruce and Alison’s speech bubbles are at the forefront, diametrically framed as symmetrical opposites to each other. This reveals a disturbing truth: Alison’s writing of her story about her relationship to her father is told at the expense of her mother. In choosing to privilege her relationship to her father, she also commits a violence by eliminating her mother’s side of the story. By building linguistic and visual mirrors into the ‘corridors’ of her narrative maze, Alison is able to explore the tension between the illusional fixity of architectural spaces and the fluidity of life. She allows greater flexibility of meaning, lessening the violence her story inflicts in eliminating her family’s perspectives.
In the resulting chapters, Bruce’s shadow diminishes in size as Alison gradually finds herself through the text’s various subtextual mirrors (Joyce’s Ulysses, in particular). Congruently, the house metaphor widens to include literary and geographic landscapes, reflecting how Alison’s growth as a human being is accompanied by the expansion of her horizons. On page 128, Alison is shown in focus holding a camera against the silhouette of the landscape. By taking a picture of her environment, she also masters it with the camera’s single eye. Finally, on page 209 of the last chapter, Alison is shown returning to the silhouette of the family home. However, this time, she is the same size as its shadow, signaling her newfound narrative mastery over her father’s legacy.
When Allison is portrayed in conversation with her father on pages 220-1, they are on level ground within a series of three by four square panels. This signals a newfound similitude between father and daughter gained through the accumulation of shared literary and personal interests in the prior chapters. The resolution of the shadow conflict takes place in an ironic ‘face-off’ between Alison and her ‘doppelganger’ father. Alison, here, is able see an uncanny double of the self she would have been had she been in her father’s position by measuring her experiences against her father. However, father and daughter are unable to connect through sexual identification: the captions state “It was not the sobbing, joyous reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus” but “like fatherless Stephen and sonless Bloom” (221.7-8). Even though they are connected visually through their similarity in posture, expression and dress, the panels separate Alison and her father into tight boxes, so a heightened tension persists between them both dramatically and textually on the page.
Within these series of panels, Alison questions “which of us was the father?” (221.10). This rhetorical question is answered by the images themselves, that show Alison and her father looking ahead with the same wry expression towards a hazy destination: Alison has become like her father. However, this transition into her father's role is not an obstacle-free one- Alison still fears being out-staged by her father, and the arrival at their destination (the theatre) does not bring along an epiphany. Rather, the sentimental endnotes of the movie they watch is openly bathetic- Lynn cries out "yes you will, Daddy" when her father mourns “I ain’t never gonna see you again” (1.222). After the fraught complexities the comic has addressed in the father/daughter relationship, this simplistic ending is hardly satisfying. Like Alison, it results with the reader driving back in “mortified silence” (223.4).
In a way, Bruce’s hidden ambition to become an artist successfully incarnates in Alison’s creation of the family memoir. However, this warrants a sacrifice of the father figure as his death rejuvenates the foundations of the Bechdel home. The ending Alison proposes is not a joyous one, but rather open-ended, requiring the reader to provide his or her own closure.
In writing Fun Home, Alison paints a complex picture of a man who both father, lover, and impassioned creator. Like the shadow, her characters hold an ambiguous form, needing the reader to give them form in the act of interpretation by holding the strings of the figures behind the textual screen. Likewise, the placing of mirrors within Alison’s architectural maze allows for a flexibility of meaning. Dead ends act as a convergence point in which Bruce and Alison’s differences are mirrored, providing a locus of vision for the reader. By refusing to inscribe a fixed meaning onto her tropes, she weaves her story into a larger, infinitely more complex history that will always be in the making. She accounts for the multiplicity of real life, allowing the reader to build his or her meaning upon her ‘set’ history. The final juxtaposed images we are left with are jarring: an imagined truck hurtling towards us as Alison’s body falls (away from us) into her father’s arms. In combining these images in a mirror-like fashion, she suggests death and life are inextricable, and it is our imperative to make sense of it by contributing to a collective mythic and interpersonal history, or get hit by a truck.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun home: a family tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.
Watson, Julia. "Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home." [cluster on graphic memoir, ed. Gillian Whitlock] biography 31:1 (Winter 2008), 27-56. Reprinted in Graphic Subjects, ed. Michael A. Chaney, University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming 2010.