Monday, September 10, 2007

Step Away from the Thesaurus

I just finished reading Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, the first graphic novel I've ever read. Except it's not a novel, it's a memoir.

Nutshell synopsis: The author/illustrator recounts what it was like to grow up with her very exacting, difficult-to-please, unemotive father who was both a high school English teacher and a mortician. Shortly before her dad commits suicide and about the same time the author comes out as a lesbian (at age 20 or so), she finds out that her father was a closeted homosexual.

All this is revealed in the first few pages, and the rest of the book is basically Bechdel reexamining and illustrating events from her childhood, with the knowledge that all along her father was subverting his sexuality (not always successfully). It's a sad and very interesting story, and Bechdel does both a very good job and a very bad job of telling it.

It's excruciatingly obvious that she does not feel comfortable writing narrative. Somewhere along the line she evidently got the idea that being a writer means combing unabridged dictionaries and thesauruses for the longest and most Latinate (a word I'm sure she'd love) words she could find and then using as many as possible in every sentence. Hello! It's a comic book! Give it the Jughead test. Would the words "fricative," "lacunae," and "solipsistic" ever issue forth from Jughead's mouth? No? Then eschew don't use them! Even worse, sometimes she didn't even use the words correctly or seem to grasp their subtle connotations. I mean a few ten-dollar words used sparingly and correctly is great, but larding every sentence with four or five of them is like dumping a tablespoon of every spice in the spice rack into a pot of soup.

OK. I'm done finding fault. Bechdel is a very talented illustrator and storyteller. She has a wonderful sense of detail. For example, she attaches sly little labels on a drawing of her father and her preadolescent self identifying her father's jacket as being made of "velvet!" (as if to say, "The guy wore velvet and we never suspected he was gay?") and the sailor suit dress she was wearing as being the least girly dress she could find in the department store. So much better to flesh out personalities that way than to write sentences like, "And festoons of the noxious substance proliferated beyond my control so my preventive measures spawned more stopgap measures." Huh? (I guess I wasn't quite done finding fault.)

I think what I liked best, though, or at least appreciated most, were the period details. For example, in one frame she's carrying an H.R. Pufnstuf lunchbox. In another frame showing a scene of Greenwich Village in the early 1970s, she's got an arrow labeled "Brut" pointing to a man who's not even fully in the frame (but you know that even after he was blocks away, you'd still be able to smell his cologne); another arrow points toward a subway entrance and is labeled "urine and electricity"; "menthol" points toward a man's cigarette; "diesel" points to a bus; and "putrefaction" points to a festering trash can. Wow. Talk about setting a scene with a few masterful details. It's brilliant. And she does that on just about every page. If only she would have had enough confidence to write the narrative that way.

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