Saturday, April 13, 2013

Review: Intertextuality and Literary Tradition in Bechdel's Fun Home

Granted, Fun Home is not a text that deals with specifically with colonial issues, but I was so impressed by the novel that I wanted to write a little bit about it. And yes,
I'm definitely  late to the party on this one.
 Fun Home is a densely intertextual graphic novel. As we read the text, we are consistently bombarded with other texts and connections to other texts in many different ways. We  see snapshots of pages from Joyce’s Ulysses, “handwritten” copies of personal letters, reproduced diary pages, court documents, maps, and even scribbled marginalia all alongside more traditionally drawn graphic figures. In addition to the actual reproduction of other texts, Bechdel also draws our attention to texts outside the novel through references, both in words and images. For example, on page 7 the drawing of her father is a direct reference to the story of Christ carrying his cross, which is reinforced by the text “It was his passion. . .martyred”. On this page the word “passion”, connotes her father’s love of architectural restoration, as well as his homosexual desire and the passion-story of Christ.  Other texts are interwoven with the narrative of the graphic novel itself that the plot and affect of the novel seem almost entirely dependent upon them. Would Fun Home be so critically acclaimed without mentioning Christ, Icarus and Daedalus, James Joyce, Ruskin, Camus, and a host of other literary/mythic figures? 
            Bechdel’s literary enmeshing of the graphic novel is very effective, but aside from the accomplishments of aesthetics, the intertextuality seems to also be a direct challenge to the popular conceptualization of traditional “superhero” comics or graphic novels. Literature (and decidedly critically acclaimed and canonized literature) is almost the star of this novel alongside Bechdel’s characters, and the actual visibility of "literature" (both in text and images) raises many questions about canonization, i.e." What texts get canonized and why? Who decides?". We are directly asked to engage by the text with excerpts from literature, as on pages 48 (Sisyphus) and 222 (Ulysses), but we are also exposed to literature through less overt mentions through the author’s own writing, as in the Christ reference (Bible counts as literature for my purposes!) previously mentioned and her Icarus and Daedalus reflections on pages 3 and 4. Texts also appear in the background and foreground of images without explicitly being written about (15, 116), as we see her father and mother reading “Architectural Digest” and “Vogue” , as well as Ruskin, and Fitzgerald. The inclusion of these various texts (mostly literary but not all), outside of the literary texts Bechdel explicitly uses to further her story, reinforces the affect of the graphic novel as a literary text. It is almost as if she is saying “Pay attention Joyce! I can do with images and and a smattering of words in 232 pages what it took you to do in 800! This IS literature!”
 Fun Home could have been composed without such a heavy reliance on intertextuality, but Bechdel’s inclusion of multiple texts makes her story not just a personal memoir, but a text with a larger message; “comics” can be just as composed and versatile as written novels. We have the epistolary, autobiography, drama, myth, religious parable, and straight-up novel genres inside this graphic novel because of its “sampling” and re-purposing of other texts. What Bechdel creates is not a Shakespearean “play within a play” but rather, an entire literary tradition inside of a comic book. This textual interplay is what puts Fun Home in the “graphic novels for educated adults” category while making the case that such a category does (and should) exist, and I doubt the novel would be as critically acclaimed without it. I personally would love to see a this text on more college (if not high school) syllabi, not just because of its intertextuality (though that would justify its presence alone), but also because it is a well-written book that wrestles with many complex identity, sexuality, and coming-of-age issues. If we're going to require young folks to read Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, why not include Fun Home, a text that basically "proves" the cultural relevance of Joyce, in the classroom conversation?