Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home is a story that revolves around reading and interpretation. The comic tells the story of Bechdel’s relationship with her father and her attempts to come to grips with his death, which she believes is a suicide stemming from his repressed homosexuality. Using frequent digressions and leaps back and forth in the narrative’s chronology, Bechdel weaves her father’s story together with both her own queer coming of age and numerous literary allusions. An important strand of the narrative is the development of Alison, a child reader aping her father’s ideas, into Bechdel, a narrator capable of deep and complex analysis.1 Over the course of this development, Alison eventually arrives at a queer erotics of reading that encourages a free play between the personal, the fictional, and the semiotic. In order to do so, she must ultimately reject her father’s mode of interpretation, which fixates on reader identification and authorial persona. This allows her to disengage from hierarchical modes of reading and ideas of literary authority, a decision which has importance far beyond Bechdel’s individual story.
Given this focus on reading, it is not surprising that Fun Home has been a hit with the academy. Since its publication in 2006, it has been the subject of dozens of academic articles and has appeared on countless syllabi, quickly becoming one of the most-studied comics ever (Beaty and Woo 7). There’s a certain irony to this explosion of academic study, given how dismissive Bechdel’s graphic memoir is towards academia and its methods of analysis. Despite enjoying her father’s high school English classes, Alison is alienated by her encounters with literary analysis in university: “I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just read the books without forcing contorted interpretations on them” (Bechdel 200). This is punctuated by a caricature of a frustrated professor (who bears a strange resemblance to myself) sketching crudely on the board and barking, “Get it? Marlow’s steamer? Penis. The Congo? Vagina” (Bechdel 200). Alison is obviously repelled by this deterministic interpretation and the authoritative way in which it is pronounced, which presumably represents her university experience at large. She eventually abandons a critical establishment that tells her that her very words are wrong and vows to never take another English class as long as she lives (Bechdel 202). Years later, university scheduling forces Alison to take a small seminar on Ulysses. While this seems to be a less painful experience, she still finds criticism “a suspect activity” (Bechdel 205). Alison’s earlier education by her father, with his more traditional mode of reading literature, undoubtedly biased her against academia’s paranoid critiques, but the comic exaggeration of this scene hardly suggests that Alison only needed to read the right theorist to understand her life. In Fun Home, academic close reading is quickly dismissed, portrayed as comically narcissistic and pedantic. If this critique is not developed at length, it is only because Bechdel sees it as self-explanatory. If Alison is looking for a mode of reading and interpretation that will make sense of her own life, she does not find it in the university’s classrooms, but rather in obscure corners of the library and her campus’ queer student group.
Bechdel’s distrust of the academy would find sympathy within the academy itself. Over the past two decades, numerous prominent theorists have expressed just as much frustration with an academic method devoted to interrogatory close reading. These writers seek to move beyond the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a term coined by Paul Ricouer to describe a process of searching texts for symptoms of social ills and prejudices. Theorists have attempted to develop numerous alternative modes of reading and analysis. The most pertinent comparison for uncovering Bechdel’s own critical project originates in Eve Sedgwick’s article “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” which signaled a turn in Sedgwick’s work away from the symptomatic interpretation of early works, such as Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet, and towards the study of affect and queer modes of interacting with texts. In place of the routine academic exercise of what she deems paranoid reading, Sedgwick urges a more reparative method of reading, one that might pay attention to “the extremely varied, dynamic, and historically contingent ways that strong theoretical constructs interact with weak ones in the ecology of knowing” (Novel Gazing 145). In her work from the later period of her life, Sedgwick would explore ways to read “nondualistically,” focusing on affect and sensory experience. For Sedgwick, queer readers require different interpretive skills to use texts to repair relations damaged by a violent and heteronormative society. We can see comparisons here with the project of Fun Home, which sets out to heal the trauma of Bruce’s death by reconstructing him as an object of analysis.
Rita Felski develops a similar project at greater length in her book Uses of Literature. For Felski, a central problem with the hermeneutics of suspicion is its diminution of reading as a sensory, emotional and at times pleasurable activity—she asks rhetorically, “Do we gain nothing from what we read?” (3). In order to answer “no,” Felski examines four different goals of “everyday” reading—recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. Felski’s project is more descriptive than prescriptive, analyzing how these approaches function and what makes them appeal to readers, but she argues against any reading that would see these goals as simply illusory or deceitful. Ultimately, Felski suggests that these approaches are both more democratic and offer more radical potential for queer affect. In this regard, both Felski’s and Sedgwick’s projects can be compared to Alison’s approach to reading in Fun Home, in which a moment of exhaustion with academia provides an opportunity to develop a new mode of reading.
In grouping Bechdel’s memoir with these theoretical projects, my goal is not to vindicate or praise Bechdel. Fun Home is more than a simple illustration of the ideas that Sedgwick, Felski, and many others have developed. The genre of academic prose tends towards prescription and combative debunking of what has come before, a tendency that Sedgwick and Felski do not fully escape from. Sedgwick herself notes the paradoxical elements of attempting to describe deviant reading: “A lot of voices tell us to think nondualistically, and even what to think in that fashion. Fewer are able to transmit how to go about it, the cognitive and even affective habits involved, which are less than amenable to being couched in prescriptive forms” (Touching Feeling 1). Perhaps the graphic memoir, with its descriptive, but non-mimetic, form and its focus on remembrance instead of argument, offers a better chance for transmitting “how to go about it” than the academic monograph. Bechdel provides us not with a model for queer reading, but rather a personal example, one from which more general ideas can only be extrapolated. Alison’s journey is sometimes a familiar narrative, but always infused with the ethos of queer narrative. Bechdel’s attempt to do so is an imperfect, but valuable, example of a graphic narrative approach to the question of queer reading.
Bruce Bechdel and Identificatory Reading
There is an important difference between Bechdel’s work and that of the theorists in context, as well as genre. Whereas Sedgwick and Felski depict their theories as working in opposition to the suspicious close reading they saw as dominant in academia throughout the 1980s and 90s, Bechdel positions her methods as opposing readerly identification that accepts canonical authority, a method she identifies with her father Bruce. Throughout the narrative, Bruce acts as simultaneously an instructor and a foil to Alison. Bruce’s approach falls somewhere in between the type of “everyday reading” Felski valorizes and the conservative “theocratic” approach to literature she opposes. Understanding the character of Bruce Bechdel and his reading practices is thus critical to understanding Bechdel’s critique of contemporary, hierarchical reading strategies. In contrast to her father, the queer reading that Alison develops stresses the physical, the sensory and the erotic, and has as much to do with the bedroom as the printed page. This contrast demands a close reading of the reading practices of both of Fun Home‘s central characters. The following essay will show the ways in which Fun Home establishes the repressive effects of conventional identificatory reading and the liberating effects of queer reading, and in the process demonstrate that Bechdel deserves consideration not just as a cartoonist, but also as an important theorist of queer reading.
Estranged from her college English class for the reasons detailed above, Alison takes to calling her father for “coaching” (Bechdel 201). After receiving an extensive lecture on The Sun Also Rises, Alison tells Bruce that the next book on the syllabus is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Bruce comments, “Good. You damn well better identify with every page” (Bechdel 201). If Alison and Bruce’s relationship is heavily mediated through books, then her father’s controlling nature is reflected in a prescription of certain reading practices. In critic Ariela Freedman’s terms, “the demand for identification becomes a commandment instead of an invitation” (133). But why the practice of identification in particular? Bruce is not forcing a particular meaning on the text here, but rather demanding a certain affective response from Alison. The word “identify” here seems to be inevitably slippery and partial, considering how unstable the concept of identity is throughout Fun Home. But the command to identify betrays both the violence and the longing of Bruce Bechdel’s way of reading, buried beneath the authority of the canon. Throughout Fun Home, Bruce’s approach to literature is treated as indicative of both his domineering nature and his closeted sexuality, and hence the reading practices he foists on Alison can be seen as functionally hierarchical and heteronormative.
Rita Felski describes identification, or recognition in her terms, as “perplexing and paradoxical… Simultaneously reassuring and unnerving, it brings together likeness and difference in one fell swoop” (25). Felski presents recognition as an ethical practice, part of what she calls “an exhortation to look at, rather than through, the literary work” (20). For Bechdel, however, the politics of recognition are distinctly mixed. Despite his investment in the practice of identification, Bruce remains someone who, as Bechdel narrates, has an “awesome capacity for cognitive dissonance” (199). If reading is a form of self-fashioning for Bruce, the self that it creates is a presentation of normalcy that represses queer desires. Bruce’s ability to read text and present those readings as authoritative is cemented by his position as a high school teacher, a position that is in turn directly linked to both his presentation as an upstanding citizen of Beech Creek and his secret affairs with teenage boys. Given this, Bruce’s commandment to identify with literature suggests a reading practice that is hopelessly caught up in the suppressed complexities of his own identity, and suggests that Bruce himself may be the object of a similar commandment from a heteronormative society. This is a point where we can see Bechdel diverging from Felski and Sedgwick, largely due to her object of critique. Felski, seeking to counter the academic assumption that any form of identification with literature is always a case of misrecognition, argues that recognition can nevertheless be powerful and productive (46). Bechdel, engaging with more conventional modes of reading, presents dangers of misrecognition that are more difficult to sweep away and, in the case of Bruce, may literally be fatal.
In Bruce’s early life, identification with literature emerges as a way to create a heterosexual identity. After his death, Alison discovers a trove of letters between a young Bruce and his future wife that reference F. Scott Fitzgerald’s autobiography The Far Side of Paradise. It’s clear that Bruce relates to Fitzgerald’s work through the device of identification, which Bechdel describes as “seeing himself in various characters,” writing to Helen that “[Fitzgerald] reminds me of myself, especially the old ’emotional bankruptcy'” (62). This is an ironic detail, given that such recognition rests on the idea of a stable and authentic self: it is precisely Fitzgerald’s anxiety about a lack of genuine self that Bruce identifies with. Rather than using Fitzgerald’s work to identify an inner truth, such as his own queer sexuality, Bruce uses Fitzgerald’s literary style to create a mask of heterosexual desire, crafting love letters that Bechdel notes are “lush with Fitzgeraldesque sentiment” (63). The excerpt of one letter that Bechdel crops in the panel below this caption takes pains to announce itself as a declaration of love, betraying a self-consciousness about its nature as a performative action: “Do you know I love you. That made me feel so good I’ll say it again. I love you I love you I love you, you crazy wonderful girl” (63). Bechdel goes on to imagine a point of readerly identification between her father and Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s most famous character. Again, this is an identification based precisely on the ability and desire to create an artificial self using textual materials—Gatsby’s fake books and Bruce’s real ones (84-85). Bechdel makes the importance of performative identity to the comparison explicit by writing that “such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade” (65).
It is fitting that Bruce becomes interested in Fitzgerald through his autobiography instead of his more well-known novels, as the personal life of authors is central to his reading strategy. For Bruce, the object of identification is not just character, but also author, with the text functioning as a kind of conduit for a relationship of recognition and mutual understanding between reader and writer. Bechdel believes that “what was so alluring to my father about Fitzgerald’s stories was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life” (65). When we do see Bruce presenting a reading of a text, it is a strictly biographical one with no room for invention or ambiguity. Instructing Alison on The Sun Also Rises, Bruce says that “Jake is Hemingway. Cohn was a guy named Harold Loeb. Brett is a Lady Duff Twysden” (201). What draws Bruce to literature is the chance for a connection with a romanticized author figure. In the midst of his phone lecture on the novel, Bruce seeks to draw a tenuous personal connection between himself and Hemingway: “You know, Andy, the best man at our wedding, saw Hemingway in Pamplona the year before we were married” (201). As Bechdel suggests in her narration, Bruce’s reading habits are a way to participate vicariously in the life of the author, just as his instruction of Alison is a way to participate in her life as a student (65, 201). Suspecting his daughter’s lesbianism, Bruce gives her Colette’s Earthly Paradise, saying that “you should learn about Paris in the twenties, that whole scene” (205). This shows both Bruce’s literalism and his insistence on reading as a way to access famed literary “scenes.” Even when done in the name of queer recognition, as in Alison’s readings detailed below, identification as depicted in Fun Home is always an identification with not just a character or a text, but with the literary persona that created it.
The phone conversations in which Bruce coaches Alison through her English courses are a microcosm of the ways in which Bruce claims literary authority. The tenuous personal connection with Hemingway plays its part in this claim, as does his ability to supply a huge amount of historical information. Bruce’s language here is definitive, using the assured “is” instead of “based on” or “similar to” to describe the resemblance between Hemingway and his protagonist. It also resembles the “Marlow’s Steamer? Penis” insistence of the professor on the facing page. The panel preceding Bruce’s biographical reading of Hemingway shows Alison complaining about her professor writing “wrong word” on her paper: “‘Is’? How can ‘is’ be wrong?” (Bechdel 201). If, as Bechdel has said, “the book is just an expansion of my freshman English paper,” then this moment takes on epistemological importance (Chute 181). This panel is ironically sandwiched between two clear examples of “is” being wrong, with both the professor and her father phrasing their interpretive statements as matters of fact. The top panel of the facing page shows Bruce using similarly definitive language in a moment of direct identification: “Faulkner IS Beech Creek. The Burdens ARE Bechdels” (Bechdel 200). These separate scenes—Alison listening to the lecture, receiving her grade, and receiving instruction from her father—are all juxtaposed over two facing pages, inviting the readers to make connections between the formal and informal types of authority being exercised. Fun Home calls attention to Bruce’s casual use of the definitive “is” through capitalization, repetition, and Alison’s professor’s comment, as a way to show how, even in his basic grammar, Bruce has a kind of literary authority that she lacks. Bruce’s gender and heterosexual presentation also give him an ability to claim identification with virulently male canonical authors such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway that Alison lacks. Bechdel spends the rest of the page illustrating Alison receiving the lecture, gradually sitting down and growing disenchanted as Bruce’s word balloons overwhelm the panel. Bechdel writes that “eventually, his excitement left little room for my own. And by the end of the year I was suffocating” (201). The failure of Bruce’s lecture suggests that its reading strategies are ultimately flawed and exclusionary. In Fun Home, identificatory reading, at least as practiced by Bruce, is not part of a politics of recognition, but rather part of the process of domination and authority.
The problematic implication of Bruce’s reading strategy plays its part in the celebrated sequence in which a young Alison’s attempt to keep a diary begins a descent into OCD. Numerous critics have commented on this scene, including Hillary Chute, Julia Watson, and Jared Gardner, but what is often ignored is the way that the act of reading frames the production of Alison’s diary and her subsequent doubts about its authenticity. Bechdel suggests that she “picked up” many of her compulsions from reading Dr. Spock, along with other child-rearing books, and fixating on their details, an example of the dangers of unquestioned identification with a text (135). When Alison first receives the diary, Bruce gives her a head start by writing “Dad is reading” in his own handwriting, leaving Alison to fill in the title of the book (140). Alison’s epistemological crisis literally begins with “Dad is reading,” and her father’s act of writing the first words in her own diary show that his reading practices are both a way of connecting with and understanding his daughter and also a way of controlling and defining her. She comes to see her language as being too certain for her highly subjective viewpoint, commenting that “my simple, declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst” (141). This forces her to insert parenthetical “I think”s and later inscrutable marks in order to signal her lack of authority to an unknown reader. Alison lacks the “hubristic” certainty in her own identity that allows her father to simply write “Dad is reading.” The marks she makes over her own words presage her professor’s criticism, both in shape (a squiggle instead of “W. W.”) and in their attempt to point out the way in which “is” can be wrong. The young Alison’s attempt to persist in a singular and straightforward self-narration, as compared to the complicated and ambivalent self-narration that is Fun Home, ultimately leads her close to mental breakdown. Part of her recovery involves her mother writing her diary entries for her, leaving out the marks of uncertainty—a rejection, in the end, of paternal authority (143). The diary is, among other things, a failed attempt to imitate the certainty of her father’s critical strategy. But of course, Bruce’s certainty in itself only masks a deep confusion about his own sexual identity, something that Alison doesn’t realize until she is an adult.
The question of misrecognition haunts both Felski’s defense of identificatory reading and Bruce’s practice of it. Felski acknowledges the persistence of the misrecognition of self and others, but suggests that this does not eliminate the potential for recognition and empathy altogether (28). Rather, she argues that the unrecognizable nature of the postmodern individual allows for recognition to be self-forming as well as self-acknowledging. Felski writes that “rather than blocking self-knowledge, language is our primary means of attaining it, however partial and flawed our attempts at understanding ourselves and others must be,” and this could describe the ways in which Alison uses reading to construct her own identity and make peace with her father’s memory (28). But for Bruce, language is not just a flawed means of self-knowledge, but an actively counterproductive one. Just as Gatsby can never fully banish his origins, Bruce’s queer sexuality immediately eludes his attempt at heterosexual self-fashioning: looking at Bruce’s copy of The Far Side of Paradise, one of his fellow soldiers jokes that “‘s this your boyfriend? He’s even prettier’n you” (Bechdel 68). Similarly, when Bruce borrows language from Joyce in his love letters, he tellingly misgenders the possessor of Joyce’s “beseeching eyes” (Bechdel 228). Identity in Fun Home, while clearly mediated through reading, retains some kernel of fundamental truth, which literature can be used to suppress as well as express. If identification is central to Alison’s self-discovery, it is also central to the ways in which heteronormativity acts against Bruce.
Bruce’s textual attempts at performing gender are also ultimately failures. Alison describes herself and her father as “inverts” of each other, a boyish girl and a womanish man (Bechdel 98). She constantly detects a failure of masculinity in him, one that she feels a need to compensate for (Bechdel 96). The term “invert,” drawn from Victorian terminology for homosexuality, suggests both the duality of the graphic novel’s two central figures as well as the antiquatedness of the gender roles Bruce attempted to fit his family into. Bruce’s fussiness, such as the constant maintenance of his Victorian-era décor, is a part of his attempt to project an image of classical and refined masculinity—a “nineteenth-century aristocrat”, as Bechdel describes it (60). Despite his aims, this attention to detail is read by the rest of his family as effeminate (13-14). In 1970s rural Pennsylvania, the markers of modernism are markers of a certain kind of dandyism. In his attempts to force Alison to dress in feminine clothes, Bruce reveals himself to be not an arbiter of gender norms, but the bearer of a characteristically queer obsession with fashion. Perhaps most crucially, his performance of gender does not convince the authorities, as seen in his arrest for giving alcohol to a minor—an arrest that clearly carries with it the suspicion of much more (161). While Alison is conscious of her own “inversion,” Bruce’s femininity is constantly leaking out of his performance of masculine identity. Again, Bechdel suggests a certain kind of sexual truth that performance can only obscure. In this she departs from Judith Butler and other theorists of queer performativity who see opportunities for play and empowerment in gender performance. As demonstrated below, there is plenty of room for play in Bechdel’s idea of queerness, but it is play that takes place further away from the self. In Fun Home Bruce’s effeminate performance of male literary authority is a marker of the failure of his reading strategy.
If Bruce’s identification were guilty only of distorting texts and removing ambiguity from them, it could perhaps be written off as a harmless flaw. But in Fun Home, reading is a life and death matter, as can be seen by Bruce’s pre-suicide reading of A Happy Death. Bechdel narrates that “it’s not that I think he killed himself out of existentialist conviction. For one thing, he would have gotten to Camus’s conclusion that suicide is illogical. But I suspect my father of being a haphazard scholar” (47). This last line is laid over a panel that suggests a reason for this haphazardness, a fraternity brother calling for a doe-eyed Bruce, which links Bruce’s interpretive failures to his repressed sexuality. This panel introduces the idea that Bruce’s readings may be flawed, and that in particular misinterpretation can be fatal. This link is also displayed in Bruce’s letter to Alison in which he “does and doesn’t come out” (230). Bruce directly borrows language from Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus in explaining his own closeting, most notably the line “I am not a hero.” Once again, Bruce is using the language of canonical modernist texts to fashion an identity, this time not the rugged masculinity of Hemingway or Fitzgerald but the intellectual antiheroism of Joyce. This identity, while less absurd, also represses the aspects of domination involved in both his relationship with his family and with the teenage boys he sleeps with. Bechdel also argues that, in Bruce’s attempt to adopt Joyce’s language, he either ignores or misconstrues the ethos behind Ulysses: “How could he admire Joyce’s lengthy, libidinal ‘yes’ so fervently and end up saying ‘no’ to his own life?” (228).
Fun Home links the tragedies of Bruce Bechdel’s life with his literary misreadings, willful and otherwise. Even if Bechdel wants to resist such a melodramatic criticism, she suggests that Bruce’s act of reading of A Happy Death, leaving it around the house with underlined passages that act as an “epitaph” for his marriage, can be read as a suicide note. As in the classroom, Bruce’s readings take on a public function, but inevitably say more about his private issues than they do the text. Through his acts of identification, Bruce aligns himself with canonical literary authority and heterosexual masculinity, allegiances that are mostly aspirational but nevertheless give him some degree of power. It is this authority that allows Bruce to insult his students’ reading practices, or lack thereof, and impose his reading strategies and enthusiasms on Alison. This is the same dogmatic power that Sedgwick and Felski recognize in academic convention and against which they define their own projects. But the power recognition offers Bruce is ultimately a poisonous one, leading to self-repression and suicide. In response, Alison is forced to develop an alternative that allows the queer reader to survive.
Alison’s Rebuke: The Queer Erotics of Reading
In contrast to Bruce’s repressive project of identification, the project of Fun Home as a text is clearly reparative. As author and artist, Alison Bechdel uses textual documents, both literary works and letters written by Bruce, to attempt to reconstruct his double life and come to terms with his death. Fun Home begins with several pages dedicated to Bruce’s refurbishment of the old Victorian home in which Alison grew up. The early prominence of this event marks it as a symbol of both Bruce’s carefully maintained façade of propriety and Bechdel’s own project of reconstructing her past and her father’s life. As Bechdel said in an interview, she “had to dismantle [Bruce’s] literary authority over [herself]” before she could begin this book (Chute 158). Ultimately, however, this dismantling leaves space for a project of reparative reading, which is, as Sedgwick suggests, inextricably linked to queerness.
The concept of reparative reading marks a return to reading and interpretation as a process of meaning making. Both Sedgwick and Felski challenge politicized critique for presenting a unidirectional model of reading, in which texts’ ideological assumptions simply impose themselves on the reader. In some ways, their project hearkens back to reader response criticism, pioneered by scholars such as Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish. Iser positioned his work against canonical reading practices by arguing that, because interpretation causes an inevitable slide of meaning, “interpretation reveals the inherent problem of authority” (27). However, Iser asserts that the text also holds its own and shapes the reader’s interpretation, making the act of reading a dualistic negotiation of meaning between reader and text (60). But where Iser and Fish posit an implied reader curated by the text, or (in Fish’s later work) a multitude of interpretive communities (in other words, groups of readers who share common interests and develop interpretations together), Sedgwick and Felski imagine a singular, even lonely reader. Their reader is implicitly suggested to be female and queer.
As Heather Love points out, Sedgwick does not aim to banish paranoia from academia—after all, she admits to being a paranoid reader par excellence—but rather aims to incorporate it into a more thorough and diverse critical approach. Sedgwick continually describes her project in “Paranoid and Reparative Reading” as a queer one, opening the essay with an anecdote from her experience as an AIDS activist and stating that queerness has “a distinctive history of intimacy with the paranoid imperative” (Novel Gazing 6). Sedgwick draws on the example of intergenerational affective relationships between queer people as inspiration for a move away from this imperative into a more fluid and rebellious mode of analysis. For Sedgwick, reparative reading is not just a corrective to academia, but also a way to save queer individuals from the domineering negative affect of paranoia to which it has become so accustomed. In her introduction to the collection Novel Gazing, Sedgwick focuses on the attempt to develop a “nondualistic” theory that avoids both the political binary of progressive/regressive and the poststructuralist binary of naïve realism and the supposedly subversive faith in groundlessness. By contrast, Sedgwick describes her own work as “slip-slidey” and related to the “art of loosing,” suggesting a desire to explore without the rigorous focus and orientation towards argument expected of academic prose (1-3). The physical process of touch is key to this approach, as it undermines dualistic conceptions of reality and creates a greater sense of the “texture” of texts and life (Sedgwick 14). Sedgwick also writes that the most relevant preposition for her project is not “beneath,” suggesting a paranoid excavation of hidden meaning, but “beside”—a preposition that has resonance with Bechdel’s memoir, where literary education and play take place next to both family members and lovers instead of in the hierarchical environment of the classroom (8). Through this shift in attitude, Sedgwick hopes to create a more playful and free-flowing criticism whose ultimate goal is not uncovering hidden truths but finding a way to relate to multivalent works within the “middle ranges of agency” (14). Queer reading, then, is that which takes place beside and between orthodoxies, aiming not for revelation (as in the religious exegesis that Iser uses as his chief examples) but recuperation.
In Uses of Literature, Rita Felski calls attention to the multitude of reading practices usually dismissed by academia and the ways in which they provide psychological boons to the reader—another form of Sedgwick’s “reparative reading.” Felski’s approach, unlike Sedgwick’s, is not one based explicitly on queer theory or experience, but the queer reader remains a privileged subject. She prominently uses Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness as an example of both the depiction of literary identification and the object of such identification by real readers. Felski later draws on D.A. Miller’s depiction of the male reader of Jane Austen, who in the midst of shamefully transgressing gender norms experiences “a temporary severance from a personhood that is felt to be anomalous, queer, out of place” (64). For both Felski and Miller, the homosexual is a figure society associates with devalued forms of reading, with deviant reading practices analogous to deviant practices of gender. It would certainly be possible to frame the project of accepting and valuing different reading styles otherwise—for instance, as an appeal to neoliberal consumer choice or in the name of cultural populism—but Felski implicitly presents an openness to different styles of reading as in concert with an openness to the diversity of sexual and gender identity and experience. The queer reader, even if not an explicit focus of Felski’s work on reading practices, is central to her arguments.
In exploring divergent modes of reading, Bechdel uses much of the same vocabulary as Sedgwick and Felski. Felski and Sedgwick both use a mythological allusion to the sirens’ song in order to describe their attraction to deviant reading practices (Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, 71). In turn, Bechdel uses this allusion to describe lesbian sex itself (Fun Home 207). The way in which Felski narrates the reader’s sudden “flash of recognition” echoes the way Bechdel depicts her own moment of sexual self-awareness while reading a book (Beyond 23). Throughout Fun Home, Alison borrows, magpie-like, from assorted texts as a way of understanding her relationship with her father. Ariela Freedman describes this as a bildungsroman-like process of “self-invention” through reading (130). Hillary Chute notes that “on every page of Bechdel’s text comics builds a certain kind of space that counters the methodology of her father and the modality of the family home he shaped” (180). Chute describes this distinction as an attention to loss and absence, a focus that echoes the priorities of queer theorists such as Sedgwick (188). Alison’s reading practice can also be compared to the more positive version of recognition outlined by Felski, in which texts are used to understand interior desires and construct a self through the recognition of others. If Bruce offers us a case of what can happen when identification goes wrong, Bechdel’s book-long attempt to recognize her life in literature is a more positive portrayal. But there is also a physical and sensual aspect of Alison’s literary approach that is more difficult to capture through theoretical comparisons. Alison’s literary play has pleasures far more immediate than deconstructive jouissance. Fun Home draws a direct connection between the joys of literary disobedience and queer sexual pleasure, both practices that Bruce attempts to avow and Alison ultimately accepts. If Felski and Sedgwick build on earlier theorists of reading by giving their imagined reader a specific gender and sexuality, Bechdel moves further down this path by making it a specific individual—herself.
Bechdel’s practice in Fun Home of playing with multiple textual elements and meanings in order to understand her queer reality is best displayed in its final chapter. Chute describes this chapter as the pièce de résistance of Bechdel’s technique, and in particular focuses on a page near the end in which the narrative and narration move effortlessly between four different narrative strands and settings. The chapter as a whole functions as a four-way comparison between Alison’s emerging lesbianism, Bruce’s closeted life, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Homer’s Odyssey. Bechdel is queering Joyce and Homer in a straightforward way by using their texts to express queer sexual awakening, but she is also practicing queer reading by freely skipping between several narratives at once and not allowing any one pride of place, as her father does. Far from her father’s reverence for canonical authors, Bechdel has described the chapter as her “fuck you” to Joyce (Gardner). For Bechdel, Joyce and Fitzgerald are still sources of recognition, but it is a recognition that does not regard the text as a holistic authority but rather as a field of play.
This play moves beyond an approach to literature that would view it as either supporting or undermining gay liberation, the kind of symptomatic political valuation that Felski criticizes. In a brief scene chronologically late in the narrative, Alison mentions to her father that the gay advocacy group she belongs to is picketing the film Cruising for its homophobia, but she is unable to articulate the group’s symptomatic critique. Bechdel then includes a very large panel of Bruce snorting in derision (219). For Alison, looking for a way to have an open conversation with her father about his own cruising, reading-as-politics is a dead end, and this version of queer critique has little place in the critical methods of either Bruce or Alison. By dominating the page, Bruce’s dismissal of political critique formally stops Alison’s attempt at connecting through politicized critique in its track and disrupts the rhythm of the conversation, in stark contrast to the more productive moment of mutual recognition in the car that follows it, which is represented by twenty-four small panels over a two-page grid (Bechdel 220-221). While this sort of dismissal could be used for quietist ends, Fun Home is not criticizing queer activism or even politicized reading—it depicts Alison doing plenty of both—but it is rejecting a simplistic imposition of a political dichotomy onto literature that does not take into account the pleasures of reading and the variability of reading practice.
The comparison between the interpretation of a text and the interpretation of a life would be more tenuous if Alison’s relationship with her father were not so frequently mediated by texts. This is evident in their bonding and eventual disenchantment over shared literary reading, as detailed above, but it is also true for more everyday texts. Fun Home reconstructs a number of purely functional texts—letters, court documents, passports—which Chute describes as an archive of Bruce’s life (199). Most critically, Alison declares her own homosexuality and learns of her father’s through an exchange of letters between her and her mother. This scene is repeated three times throughout Fun Home, each with different detail and framing, suggesting its centrality to the narrative (Chute 183). It is Alison’s reading of this exchange that sets the framework for Fun Home as an autobiographical project. Alison has to uncover her father’s homosexuality through a difficult exchange of letters with her mother, in which she has to demand clarification of unclear phrases like “another form that almost resulted in catastrophe” (Bechdel 78-79). Bruce also writes a cryptic letter that assumes that Alison is already aware of his sexuality. Alison’s attempt to decipher this letter involve a complex calculus of perspectives: “He thought that I thought that he was a queer, whereas he knew that I knew that he knew that I was too” (Bechdel 211-212). While the truth ultimately emerges through a phone call, its first emergence requires an inquisitive reading practice that involves attempting to understand an unknown perspective. For both Alison and her parents, understanding queerness involves a form of reading.
Alison’s encounter with an emerging body of queer literature, chronologically simultaneous with her reading of Ulysses, takes place along similarly unorthodox grounds. This reading is presented as a self-education, with Bechdel comparing it to an “independent study” (205). It is not, however, simply a matter of recognizing repressed desires in queer texts. Bechdel attributes these texts with not just reflecting her queerness but in some sense creating it. She describes her coming-out as “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). One aspect of this literary awakening is a free play between different texts and genres. Alison reads omnivorously, moving between fiction, autobiography, polemic, medical studies, and dictionaries as part of what Bechdel describes with the caption “One siren led to another in an intertextual progression” (207). This caption is part of two panels showing Alison tracing the influence of French lesbian writer Colette, with quotes from queer writers May Sarton and Jill Johnston citing Colette as an influence (Bechdel 207). This is a fairly direct example of intertextuality, but it still complicates Bruce’s simplistic model of the author speaking to the reader through the text. Instead, Alison traces the history of lesbian readership to see how texts speak to each other.
If reading is a way of discovering queer sexuality, queer sexuality is also a way of reading. Alison’s growing interest in gay literature is described in captions that increasingly imply a sexual allusion. Bechdel describes herself as “ravish[ing]” the library’s collection of books about homosexuality, and the next panel describes loaning out books in the terms of cruising: “soon I was trolling even the public library, heedless of the risks” (75). On the next page, the subtext is made explicit, with the top panel showing Alison reading Delta of Venus and masturbating. She is also depicted masturbating to Colette’s autobiography, the book her father intended for her to identify with in a fairly literal manner (Bechdel 207). The emergence and maturation of Alison’s own reading style, diverging from her father’s self-denial, involves a turn to autoerotic play. Admittedly, masturbating to erotica is not perhaps the best example of disorderly and disobedient reading processes. The clearest example of the role of the erotic in Alison’s reading practice occurs during a sequence depicting her love affair with Joan, another lesbian student. Bechdel describes Joan’s bed as “strewn with books, however, in what was for me a novel fusion of word and deed” (80). This caption is within a panel displaying said bed, with books by Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly prominent in the frame. What Alison and Joan develop, then, is a practice that allows the literary pleasures of reading, the physical pleasures of sex, and the political power of lesbian feminism to speak to each other and bleed into one another. In one panel, Alison and Joan use the children’s book James and the Giant Peach in sexual play, riffing on the double entendre of the word “peach” (Bechdel 80). The dictionary, formerly a source of prescriptive linguistic authority, becomes another source of eroticism: “Os-, mouth, oral, oscillate, osculate, orifice” (Bechdel 80). Bechdel writes that “in the harsh light of my dawning feminism, everything looked different” (81). The turn to play is not a turn away from critique: in between bouts of lovemaking, Joan takes time to read The World of Pooh and declares that “God, Christopher Robin’s a total imperialist!” (Bechdel 81). Literary erotics is a way to recognize the sensuous pleasures of the text and the way its elements can be played with and used in ways that go beyond identification and even the neat performances of deconstruction and analysis that are rejected by Bechdel as well as critics such as Sedgwick. Instead of a text expressing, substituting for, or being symptomatic of erotic desire, it becomes an active part of sensory play—Bechdel’s “fusion of word and deed.”
It is fitting that the dictionary has an unlikely role in Alison and Joan’s sexual play, as dictionary definitions are a recurring device in Fun Home. In some cases, the definitions are simply used to mark Alison’s growing knowledge of the world, as when she is “86ed” for the first time (Bechdel 106). Other uses of the dictionary reinforce Bechdel’s practice of playing with, and ultimately refusing, meanings. For instance, one large panel shows the many definitions of “queer” in the Bechdel’s dictionary, with the caption noting that “every sense of that multi-valent word” could apply to Bruce’s death (57). Bechdel also notes that the dictionary’s definition of “queer” excludes the connotation of homosexuality. This neatly encapsulates Alison’s response to the definitive power of male and heteronormative literary tradition: taking as many aspects from that tradition as she can, even contradictory ones, but also attempting to correct its conspicuous and telling exclusions. The dictionary also functions as a way of isolating words from any meaning. A crucial part of Alison’s reading practice is the word as a sound image and the sensory experience of speaking or hearing it. When Alison discovers the word “orgasm” in the dictionary, she is immediately alert to its meaning because of “the approximant liquid of that ‘or’, the plosive ‘ga’, the frictive ‘z’ or the labial, nasal sigh of the final ‘um'” (Bechdel 171). In this sign of the fusion of text and sex, Bechdel describes the pronunciation of the word “orgasm” as comparable to the experience of an orgasm. A young Alison even omits the word from her diary, hoping that this will “cancel out” her physical masturbation (Bechdel 172). This eroticization of phonetics is not too far removed from Alison and Joan discovering the many possibilities of “os.” Bechdel even attributes her first encounter with lesbianism to the dictionary: “I was thirteen when I first learned the word due to its alarming prominence in my dictionary” (74). This caption is spread unusually across two panels depicting first Alison’s startled look and then the image of the dictionary definition, with “lesbian” standing out in bold curved letters. This pair of panels is reminiscent of the cinematic eye-line match, suggesting that this moment of reading is akin to a romantic encounter. Alison’s erotics of reading involves a careful attention to the sensory aspects of words, including their appearance and their sound image. The sensation of sound is also another sensory experience that academic reading and Bruce’s literary identification marginalize, and which Alison’s queer reading draws out as a source of pleasure.
There are elements of contradiction in this celebration of queer reading, and moments where Bechdel engages in the same kind of selective interpretation that her father practiced. Even as Bechdel rejects the definitive and compulsory modes of identification laid down by her father, she finds herself identifying with everyone from truckers to Ulysses. Even as they range across genre, Bechdel’s readings could be said to conform to a kind of queer literary canon—Nin, Colette, Wilde. And despite her rebuke of academic overanalysis, Bechdel ultimately performs a symptomatic reading of her father’s life, reading every part of her life with her father as cannily concealing hidden truth, and using this interpretation to fill her emotional needs. Explaining why she and her mother believe that Bruce’s death was a suicide and not an accident, Bechdel notes that “it’s possible that we chose to believe this because it was less painful. If he’d intended to die, there was a certain consolation in the fact that he succeeded with such aplomb” (29). This is not strictly “reading,” unless one uses a very broad definition of textuality, but it suggests a distinctive practice of interpretation, and a strong emotional investment in the result. Near the end of Fun Home, Bechdel belatedly acknowledges that “‘erotic truth’ is a rather sweeping concept. I shouldn’t pretend to know what my father’s was. Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as ‘gay’ in the way I am ‘gay’, as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself—a sort of inverted Oedipal complex” (230). In psychoanalyzing her father with a clear investment in identifying him as gay, Bechdel opens herself up to such psychoanalysis, in a potentially endless recursive spiral of symptomatic reading. In a way, the example of Fun Home leads us in the end back to paranoid and symptomatic reading. This should lead to some caution in adapting it as a triumphant model of reparative interpretation.
But by the act of openly displaying the psychological desires and anxieties that lead to her interpretation of her father’s life, Bechdel ultimately breaks the cycle of critique by not sublimating or hiding her own personal and ideological investment and acknowledging that her narrative is a partial and subjective interpretation that creates meaning as much as it interprets it. Rather than forcing a definitive meaning on her father’s suicide, Alison acknowledges the event as being a field of many meanings which she can act on. While Bruce presents his reading as definitive, Alison admits that hers is always partial and biased. As Chute suggests, there is an “elasticity” to Alison’s perspective that is missing in Bruce’s obsessive neatness (186-188). Part of this elasticity is the willingness to depict the struggle between paranoid and reparative impulses within the book, ultimately leading to Bechdel’s use of both approaches. Fun Home‘s contradictions are ultimately productive instead of disabling because the text embraces them. Fun Home represents not so much a model of queer reading to be followed as an example of the difficulty and the promise of reading differently.
The difficult hybridity of Alison’s reading experience, mirrored by the hybridity of the comics form, is an essential aspect to Bechdel’s approach. Numerous critics have suggested that comics naturally lend themselves to narratives that resist straightforward ideas of authorship and plot. Adrielle Mitchell describes comics as consisting of networked image fragments that resist any easy distinction between words and images as well as character and background. Gillian Whitlock has coined the term “autographics” to define what she describes as a unique interaction between the visual and the verbal and the complicated relationship to memory that interaction creates in autobiographical comics. Jared Gardner argues that the comics memoir has a natural self-reflexivity determined by the hybridity of its form, with Fun Home a prime example of the genre. Furthermore, structural theorists of comics have argued that the form invites a kind of active readership that prose doesn’t. In Scott McCloud’s foundational work Understanding Comics, he argues that the presence of gutters between panels requires the reader to imagine whatever kind of movement or transition takes place between the panels. In Projections, Jared Gardner makes a similar argument along more historic lines, suggesting that the history of comics as a serial medium has created a back-and-forth relationship between reader and creator. If Bechdel is interested in promoting a more active and discursive mode of readership, comics would seem to be a natural fit. I am skeptical of statements about the inherent nature of the medium, but in Fun Home, comics have exactly the qualities attributed to them by critics such as Whitlock, McCloud, and Gardner, and are a vital element of the queer reading that Alison develops.
Throughout the memoir, Bechdel suggests that the interplay of words and images is an essential part of her response to her father’s legacy. In the scene involving Bruce’s false identification with Fitzgerald’s heterosexual sentiment, another soldier is seen reading a horror comic in the background, suggesting comics as an alternative to Bruce’s reverence for canonical literature (Bechdel 62). Early examples of Alison’s art also point to the tangle of creation, memory, domination, and sexuality that Bechdel ascribes to comics. A young Alison writes a poem and illustrates it, combining image and words. Tellingly, her father supplies the last line, suggesting that at this stage Alison’s artistic voice is still largely controlled by her father’s literary practices (Bechdel 129-130). This scene is immediately followed by one in which Bruce chastises Alison for miscoloring the canary-hued caravan from The Wind in the Willows. By the end of the scene, Bruce has taken over for Alison and does his best to correct the image, saying that “your blue side will be in shadow” (Bechdel 131). This segment demonstrates that Alison’s artistic practice as well as her attempts to queer the texts she reads (she colors the caravan midnight blue, a shade associated with masculinity) are under threat from her father’s literal readings and obedience to the authorial persona.
The mixture of text and image plays a central role in Alison’s self-awareness of her own sexuality, from her young obsession with men’s fashion magazines to the Word is Out photo essays, which she is reading at the moment of her lesbian self-realization (Gardner 5). Bechdel’s artistic process is also one that involves queer recognition and empathy. As Chute details, Bechdel created a reference shot for each panel by posing in the posture and clothing of one of the characters (Chute 200). This is both a strikingly literal gesture of empathy and a form of physical transgression, inhabiting her father’s clothes and posture and hence his masculine self-presentation. The queer and transgressive nature of this process is hinted at in a scene in the text itself, depicting an adolescent Alison trying on her father’s own clothes. The caption reads: “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” (Bechdel 182). In creating Fun Home, then, Bechdel finds a means of identification and empathy akin to the pleasurable transgression of drag. But rather than using this identification to bury her own identity, as Bruce does with the literature he reads, Bechdel uses sympathetic recognition to create a work that is both infused with her own voice and that troubles stable notions of identity entirely. There is also a sensory dimension to this approach: Bechdel says in an interview “it seemed important not just to know what that looked like, but what it felt like” (Chute 200). Bechdel’s creative process involves the same form of identification as self-recognition that Boone and Sedgwick describe. Without conflating reading and creation, I would like to argue that Bechdel sees the comic form as an essential part of her interpretive apparatus that shapes both her approach to literature and, ultimately, her understanding of her father.
Fun Home goes beyond combining word and image in the routine way familiar to comics readers. Its heavy use of text, sometimes replacing images altogether, calls attention to both the importance of reading to the text and the hybrid, and patchwork, nature of the comics form. Fun Home contains dozens of panels in which the “image” is simply a reproduction of a textual document, whether it be the pages of a published book, one of Bruce’s old letters, or Alison’s diary. These panels are text on text, with Alison’s narration in the caption presenting an interpretation of the text in the panel. In these moments, Bechdel’s concern with reading and interpretation overwhelms the visual nature of the genre she has chosen. The use of “text on text” panels also suggests a comic form that is conditional and can be altered by the addition of other mediums. Bechdel follows this form by incorporating numerous other media in a kind of collage-like atmosphere—most notably photographs, which introduce each chapter as well as make up the central spread of the book, but also maps and forms of writing ranging from love letters to police reports. If, as Bechdel herself and scholars such as Gardner have argued, comics lends itself to a particularly subversive and postmodern form of autobiography, Bechdel heightens this effect by bringing even more genres into the generic collage that is the graphic memoir. This mixing of genres is tied to queer self-awareness through the narrative of Alison’s “independent study” into homosexuality, which like Fun Home itself indiscriminately encompasses a variety of genres. If Sedgwick and Felski call for a multivalent mixture of reading strategies, this mixture is exactly what Bechdel practices.
This does not mean that we have to use Fun Home as a prescriptive model of how to read queerly, which would of course be contrary to the point of queer reading. Bechdel is not always the flagbearer of queer reading that I would like her to be. She relies, as Sedgwick and Felski do, on an implicit narrative confrontation between a liberated queer reader and a paternal authority figure, in which the authority’s seemingly objective mode of reading is revealed to be a form of repressing self and others. This is certainly not non-dualistic thinking. In depicting her father’s closeting as a trauma that ended his life and from which Alison must escape, Bechdel places the same faith in exposure of inner truth as the paranoid critics Sedgwick. Critics who argue that Felski’s “postcriticism” disables the ability for criticism to combat institutional power, such as Leo Konstantinou, would likely find the same uncomfortable quietism in Bechdel’s inability to explain why a film with “bad stereotypes” demands political action. But what is so valuable about Fun Home is that it offers a detailed and complex treatment of one person’s queer reading practice. Perhaps because Bechdel is writing a graphic memoir instead of an academic article, she is able to more fully articulate a method of queer reading than any theorist I’ve encountered has, and possibly more than any theorist can. If we turn to queer reading strategies in a search for direct political effect, we are likely to be just as disappointed as we were in symptomatic reading. But Fun Home demonstrates that on a personal and affective scale, such approaches can be illuminating and liberating.
The Graphic Memoir as Queer Literary Education
For all of the salient criticisms of academic reading practices raised by scholars such as Sedgwick and Felski, a meaningful alternative seems difficult to realize in the contemporary academic environment. While we may admire the ethical connotations of reparative reading or surface reading, they are often difficult to implement in the sentence-by-sentence construction of an academic journal article. The same could be said of the article you are reading, which seeks a way beyond the limitations of close reading through a close reading of a critically acclaimed text. I have hoped to highlight the potential of a project that would carve out new ways of reading across both creative and academic nonfiction. This is a project far from completion, and one that will likely involve a reinvention of the language and format of criticism far beyond the capabilities of this article. The difficulty of fulfilling a new critical project in academic writing, however, is exactly why Fun Home is so valuable. This particular graphic novel positions itself as a kind of alternative literary education, demonstrating techniques of queer and divergent reading. Its narrative demonstrates the ways in which literary texts can be mined for objects of play, which in turn can be used as objects of identification and recognition.
After two decades of her father’s literary instruction, Alison finally begins to reverse or at least equalize the process, accidentally leaving Kate Millet’s autobiography Flying for her father to read (Bechdel 224). Bruce likes the book, but ultimately finds himself unable to practice Millet’s open and radical queer politics—Alison’s moment of instruction may have come too late. Bechdel resists any attempt to fit her father’s death into a grand philosophical narrative, which would presumably include using it as a cautionary tale about the perils of literary authority. I am inclined to agree, but I would also note that Fun Home demonstrates the way in which, if queer reading cannot save a life, it can at least create a reparative encounter with the memory of that life. The lesson for scholarship is less clear—I doubt many of Alison’s practices would pass peer review. No wonder, then, that Bechdel rejected academia in favor of the graphic memoir as a way to read and write queerly.
 I will use “Alison” in this essay to describe the young character depicted in the panels and “Bechdel” to describe both the older narrator and the author herself, or at least the author function, two voices which the memoir presents as identical.
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