Like most literature, nonfiction—essays, memoirs, and literary journalism, for example—uses metaphor and literary allusion as ways to enrich prose, to make themes more powerful and reader reactions more visceral. The interesting thing about this, however, is the fact that nonfiction is simply that, not fiction. So how can a writer of nonfiction use metaphor, a literary tool that requires meticulous creation and continuity throughout a text? Surprisingly, nonfiction tends to lend itself to the metaphorical, and Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home is an excellent example of this phenomenon.
This tendency toward effortless metaphor makes Fun Home read as seamlessly as fiction. Bechdel uses literary allusions to move her plot along. She does this without strain, each classical reference landing in her story as naturally as a bumblebee landing on a flower. This is because literature speaks directly to human experience and succeeds (and becomes classic) when it can be referenced in everyday life. The characters, as if they are Alison Bechdel's puppets, behave exactly as they should to convey certain images. These metaphors succeed when they make sense to readers, when they correspond to experience.
For example, Bruce Bechdel, Alison's father, is obsessed with the interior and exterior design of the family's home. If we are speaking strictly in stereotypical terms, this is a perfect hobby for a gay man to have because it is effeminate, aesthetic, and requires an attention to detail that is typically considered to be a womanly characteristic. But this hobby also functions on a deeper, more metaphorical level. Bruce is constantly trying to construct the perfect home; he wants it to be tidy, beautiful, and impressive to others. He wants his home to be a reflection of himself. He wants to appear to have everything together, his image neatly packaged into a heterosexual, hetero-normative box. He spends a great amount of time perfecting the way his house in perceived, and a great amount of time perfecting the way his self is perceived, as well. The house is almost personified in this way, a twin to Bruce Bechdel.
Bruce's wife and Alison's mother, Helen Bechdel, is another example of effortless metaphor. She is an actress. A job in theater would be the obvious occupational choice if Helen were a fictional character, because it exemplifies her tendency towards escapism. When she rehearses a play, she memorizes her character's lines and drapes herself in her character's costume. She can be someone other than herself; she can escape her unhappy marriage. When she is on stage, performing, Alison is astonished at how vibrant her mother appears, as if she is not even the same woman. Throughout the book, Helen is not an overt character—she remains more in the sidelines, resigned to her gay husband, her sordid life. Alison Bechdel only shows her mother really coming alive when she is in dramatic productions, when she is acting not only as the character in the play, but as an escapist.
Literary allusion also nestles seamlessly into Alison Bechdel's prose. Her use of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, works brilliantly. She crafts frames of her father, sitting on his bunk in military barracks reading Fitzgerald, and these images function as metaphors, most notably because Bruce is engaging in an artistic activity, and this is a stark contrast to his fellow soldiers. His fellow soldiers are asking him endless questions about his reading. At the sight of Fitzgerald's photograph, one soldier asks, "This your boyfriend? He's even prettier'n you" (63). The contrast between her father and the stereotype of a soldier is a traditional feminine/masculine conflict. But the metaphor stretches further. The life of Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, compares to the relationship of Bruce and Helen. Fitzgerald and Zelda lived a glamorous life, a life which Bruce wishes he'd had with Helen (and it could be argued that Helen felt the same way, especially after living in New York City). Finally, there are also similarities of Bruce to one of Fitzgerald's characters, Jimmy Gatz. "Dad does not mention identifying with the character," Bechdel writes, "but the parallels are unavoidable" (63). This is not surprising; art imitates life, and therefore life will in turn imitate art.
This strange sensation happens in my own work as an essayist. Usually without my realizing it, metaphors crop up on the page, unconstructed and faithful to truth. Or, I will allude to a piece of literature without knowing it, a fascinating phenomenon in itself.
I am currently working on a piece about my Uncle Johnny, who is a recovering drug addict. He is one of my father's three brothers, and he has consistently made choices different from his siblings. He, for example, moved to Utah when everyone else stayed in Indiana. It just worked out, then, for me to write about how Johnny is tall and the rest of the brothers are short, Johnny is broad-chested and the rest are more petite, and Johnny has bright red hair when the rest of the brothers have mousy brown. In the same essay, I compare my uncle to his father, my Grandpa Jack. I wrote that when I look at photographs of my Grandpa, I see Johnny's resemblance to him more than I see the resemblance of my father or other uncles to him. I wrote, thoughtlessly, that my Grandpa Jack looks like Johnny with a Bill Clinton wig on. After composing the simile, I realized that my grandpa was a lot like Bill Clinton: a respected public figure who cheated on his wife! This is a non-fictitious, totally natural metaphor.
An example of literary allusion creeping in to my nonfiction work was when I wrote an essay about my fiance's proposal. Unbeknownst to me, I alluded to Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy from Ulysses. I have never read Ulysses, had never even heard of the soliloquy, so this was a complete accident. I wrote, repetitiously, what my "yes" meant. Yes, yes, yes. "Yes" was all over my piece, just as in Molly Bloom's lengthy and flowing speech.
It is silly to suggest that nonfiction is free of construction when in reality, nonfiction gives itself over to construction. Fictional literature is created from the very heart of human experience, of course it relates to and can be referenced in real life. If it did not have this fluidity to correspond to human experience, it would not succeed as literature. The same goes for metaphor. Metaphors function properly and powerfully when they speak to experience; Alison Bechdel's Fun Home succeeds on this level. Her work is crafted in a way that depicts her experience and transmits it directly into the core of her readers.
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