Alison Bechdel’s Labor

The genre of the graphic novel calls my attention most strongly to the labor of the author. Of course I know authors of traditional texts work hard, but while it is sometimes difficult to remember and keep in mind their efforts in writing and editing their words, with a work like Fun Home, labor is called to the forefront. The book’s text is as sharp and as crafted as any book without pictures. Bechdel somehow manages to rearrange her life’s chronology, present a complex system of allusions interwoven into her own narrative, and deliver a memoir with, as we agreed in class, much more nuance and originality than most coming-out narratives or other queer autobiographical tropes.

And her text is clear, readable, and visceral. One could read it quickly with no difficulty. In fact, it is a little too effortless to read: one could easily skip over the details in certain panels (I totally missed the cover of Anna Karenina on page 1 and the motif of Sunbeam bread until classmates pointed them out) or skim through the pages more densely packed with literary references. But to do so wouldn’t approach properly the incredible care and effort with which Bechdel prepared this book. It took her seven years to complete, and imagining each step of the process—rereading The Importance of Being Earnest or Ulysses and taking hundreds of reference photos—adds to the pleasure of reading such a great book. With regards to Alison (I will use “Alison” to refer to the character and “Bechdel” to refer to the author, though whether such a distinction should be drawn is, I guess, up to debate) and her parents’ artistic efforts, the role labor plays inside the narrative and the visibility of Bechdel’s labor in such an ornate text presents a new perspective on the relationship between labor and queerness.

Adding to the immense efforts of Bechdel as an author, Alison within the book approaches chronicling her life as a labor, as well. In fact, the memoir’s section on her OCD comes out of her description of her parents’ labors, when her mother records her lines over Bruce’s museum tour: the tape serves as “evidence of both my parents at work, intent and separate” (133). On the next page, Bechdel writes of the various artistic pursuits unfolding within her household that “[t]he more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew. […] And in this isolation, our creativity took on an aspect of compulsion. My actual obsessive-compulsives disorder began when I was ten” (134-135). (It feels so wrong to simply quote the text here—if you have the time, please take a look at the panels on pages 133-135, as well: the juxtaposition of her parents’ recordings, the Family Circle-esque details on the Bechdel “artist colony” panel, and the progression of Alison’s OCD from counting onwards are all really beautiful examples of Bechdel’s craftsmanship!) Anyway, the compulsive aspect of the family’s creative labors would refer to a lack of control: they cannot choose but to work on their various projects, out of an uncontrollable, even unhealthy, set of urges. This compulsive nature of their creativity, or at least Bruce’s, is explicitly linked to sexual desire earlier in the book when Bechdel calls her father’s passion for historical restoration a “passion in every sense of the word,” describing it as “libidinal” and “manic” (7). The sexual queerness of Alison and Bruce thus grows in the corners of a home occupied also by artistic queerness, deviant and all-encompassing sets of desires both.

Frustrated creativity—Alison’s parents’ entrapment in their small town or Bruce’s failure to make Alison over as feminine, for example—plays its role in the text, but like Alison and Bruce’s sexual passions, their creative passions seem to find ways of expressing themselves despite their constraints. Indeed, their creative drive often seems like a mechanism to control the hang-ups that frustrated or cramped sexual identity can produce. Alison’s journals or Bruce’s renovations are both attempts to reframe and reclaim the world for their own, assertions of their right to shape their lives in some way. Even if these creative instincts emerge as uncontrollable or dark forces, they are thus also means of gaining control over a world in which chance can throw together so many tragedies (or tragicomedies) over which the memoir’s characters have no control. And by presenting a text so transparent about how labor-intensive it is, Bechdel keeps this process of negotiating control and lack thereof in view, queering the memoir—again!—with the product of her labor.




Filed under Week 9: Cherrie Moraga and Alison Bechdel

2 responses to “Alison Bechdel’s Labor

  1. LGT

    Your point about the labor of the author/artist being at the forefront of this genre resonates with me, as a few of my friends who are graphic novelists often discuss the detailed work and study that is necessary for creating authentic, meaningful, and emotional images/text. For example, my friend shared that he spent eight hours studying subtle eyebrow movements in order to better represent his characters’ emotional facial expressions. – LGT

  2. I really liked your comments about compulsive creativity as well as the description of Alison and her father being suffocated in this small town. This reminds me of Giovanni’s Room and just the overall suffocated feeling that seems to come from not being able to freely express one’s desires. Their creativity seems to be a futile attempt to carve out some space of their own. Also I liked the term you threw in, artistic queerness which describes the situation perfectly.

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