The fate of medieval manuscripts is widely applicable…
So, apologies for the radio silence. I started graduate school just over a month ago and my work has left me with negligible time for anything but…work. And most of my work probably wouldn’t interest you (though luckily, so far, it mostly very much interests me). But I feel bad for neglecting my blog and I finally prepared some school work that seems relevant to what I’ve always loved to talk about here: the books I’m reading and how awesome they are. This past week I prepared and delivered a 5-minute speech, giving a close reading of one scene from Alison Bechdel’s phenomenal graphic memoir, Fun Home. If you haven’t read it, it’s so worth your time. I’m going to post my speech here; it may not be particularly compelling if you haven’t read the book, and I certainly don’t expect you to be familiar with theorist Sara Ahmed’s essay, “Sexual Orientation,” from her book Queer Phenomenology (though undoubtedly some of you are more familiar with it than I am) but for what it’s worth, consider this a peace offering for my absence from The Art of Reading.
Below are (not so high quality) images of the two pages of Fun Home I “read” in my speech.
This morning I want to talk about a particular scene from Fun Home. It’s a scene that’s baffles me a little—and that’s baffled me for long enough that I want to talk about it with all of you.
It’s a scene that takes place around a table. Not a dining room table, but definitely, as Sara Ahmed describes in “Sexual Orientation,” a table that mediates relations between relatives, a table whose tangible offer of “shared orientation”—and the unusual objects it brings into view—make “relatedness possible” (81).
The table I want to talk about is the porcelain prep table that dominates the Bechdel Funeral Home’s “inner sanctum,” the embalming room.
A page before we’re shown that table for the first time Alison and her brothers listen to their grandmother tell a story about their father. He gets stuck in the mud of newly-plowed field and has to be rescued by a mailman. What Alison remembers best is the story’s “bizarre, Grimmsian climax.” Her grandmother undresses her dirty father, wraps him in a quilt and puts him in the oven of an old-fashioned cookstove.
But “by day,” the text above the last panel on page 42 reads, “it was difficult to imagine Dad ever helpless, naked, or trussed up in an oven.” This imaginative struggle—the difficulty of conjuring up an image of her father naked and vulnerable—is important. It’s no coincidence that in this scene I want to talk about, Bruce is almost completely covered in the armor of his trade: gown, mask and gloves.
Bechdel is setting us up for an encounter, one that will be important.
Important and dangerous.
So let’s look at it closely.
On page 43, we first see Alison, her dad and grandmother from behind, facing an open door. In the next panel, Alison is alone; the door that was open–which we can now see is marked private—is closed, but we’re given a clue as to what’s behind it: the inner sanctum, a name that hints at knowledge, a knowledge sacred and interior.
And then we’re taken inside. The stage is empty—just the smell, the table, and the “curious wall chart.”
In the last panel of this page, Alison is alone again, outside the room. Her father calls from offstage—from where we’ve just been—and we turn the page as she opens the door: in the first frame of page 44, we see what she sees, and she describes it for us: “The man on the prep table was bearded and fleshy, jarringly unlike Dad’s usual traffic of desiccated old people.”
In the page-wide panel, the dead body—drawn in unusual detail—stretches its feet towards us and Alison stands darkened to one side, letting us see.
And what we see is fraught with danger and ambiguity.
The source of the ambiguity, and the danger, is fairly clear. The “strange pile of genitals” is “shocking,” but what really gets Alison’s attention, and therefore in the second panel, ours — is not the man’s penis but the split-open chest. The body’s limits are broken, its interior stares out at us, invites us in. It’s a dark red cave on a body that’s fleshy and bearded — words which so clearly evoke the vagina.
Alison and her father both stare into this hollow, hidden space. Their eyes don’t meet, but their gazes gather there in the third panel. one face masked, the other studiously betraying no emotion. Just because a moment is ambiguous doesn’t mean it can’t be a moment of recognition. And it’s no coincidence that the object that generates this danger and that simultaneously, I’d argue, facilitates a chance at relatedness—at queer relatedness—is a single torso, framing female and male genitals side by side. Suddenly this inner sanctum offers us a whole new kind of private knowledge.
Private knowledge about inheritance.
About the maze of inheritance.
Private knowledge about the maze of inheriting queer identity.
Maybe the maze is what they’re looking at, in that third frame. Maybe the maze opens like a cave, the deep red cave you’ll have to enter for a chance to see to all the way to the heart.
But back to inheritance. Alison stands with her father in the Bechdel funeral home, started by her great-grandfather, passed down from father to son. In the lower left hand panel: we watch the literal handing across of a tool of this trade, under words which evoke ideas of ancestry and inheritance, material, figurative and experiential.
We witness an exchange between father and daughter, which evokes the inheritance—of buildings and businesses but also of character, and craft—typically attributed to fathers and sons.
This re-alignment of inheritance echoes another realignment that Bechdel openly but subtly introduces on the first page of Fun Home. One she maintains to the last. And that’s the orientation of this memoir about a father and a daughter against and alongside so many stories of fathers and sons. Particularly Icarus and Daedalus and most particularly Daedalus, the old artificer.
Bechdel queers this mythology by making her father monster, maze and maze maker and also by making herself not only his inheritor, but also his creator. His profession, at least the one we see in this scene, is about the presentation of the dead. This book is Bechdel’s re-presentation of her father, after his death. But this dead man’s body, with it’s dark red cave, becomes a body capable of giving birth. Another realignment: a father giving birth to a daughter, who it turn gives birth to him after his death. We’re definitely in a maze. And like Daedalus’s maze, it’s a dangerous place. But this maze is also a wonder. It’s a feat of artistry in and of itself.
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham:
Duke University Press, 2006. Print.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.