Our Cancer Year

 I bought Our Cancer Year a couple years ago, when it was initially released. But like most “serious” long-form works, I didn’t get to it right away. I usually want to wait until I’m “ready” for them, and have the time to read them in one shot. That never happened with this one.

What happened instead is that my “ex”boyfriend (we were separated, but reluctantly) had an undetected aneurysm (a weak blood vessel in the brain) which bled. This required emergency surgery, kept Andy comatose for a couple weeks, and left him with the paralysis and diminished mental functioning of a “typical” stroke patient, with months of slow recovery in store, and an uncertain prognosis. (Please visit my Andy Bristol page for more info about him and our situation.) I still don’t have time to just sit down and read, but as I look ahead to “Our Stroke Year”, I figured this would be a good time for me to read the story of Pekar and Brabner’s year-long struggle with his cancer. I started reading:

This is a story about a year when someone was sick, about a time when it seemed that the rest of the world was sick, too.
It’s a story about feeling powerless and trying to do too much…
Maybe doing more than you thought you could and not knowing what to do next.
It’s also a story about marriage, work, friends, family, and buying a house.

Andy and I aren’t married, and I don’t own the house I’m moving into, but that sounds a lot like my story. I looked forward to seeing how theirs played out.

One thing that was a little hard to get used to was the “voice” of the book. It’s narrated in the third person, talking about the “characters” of Harvey and Joyce as “he” and “she”. This is odd for something that is so obviously autobiography. But through the use of thought balloons, the book also gets inside their heads and speaks in their voices, effectively letting Pekar or Brabner narrate from time to time. Overall, it “feels” like the story is being told by Brabner, probably because she was the more coherent and active of the two during much of their ordeal, and presumedly provided the larger part of the information as they collaborated on the story.

Their other collaborator was Frank Stack, an artist who has worked with Pekar on other books (most notably, installments of his American Splendor series). His art is rather sketchy and fluid, which can be a little hard to follow at times. And what looks like the hints of pencil lines under the ink (particular around captions) gets distracting to someone accustomed to highly-polished professional reproduction. But he does a good job conveying the distorted and surreal turns their lives often took. And he can be clinically explicit without the glistening gore that a more realistic or sensationalistic artist (especially one with computer coloring handy) would produce; the focus is on the characters… that is, the people.

In some respects, I was disappointed by Our Cancer Year. The differences between cancer treatment and stroke recovery are pretty big, so I didn’t get the level of “been there” identification I’d somewhat selfishly hoped for. Also, at times the story veered off into issues unrelated to Pekar’s cancer, particularly Brabner’s involvement in the international peace activities. Aside from some bits about her concern about leaving her husband (and his concerns about her leaving), it didn’t seem to tie in very well with the rest. I know that real life doesn’t always fit together meaningfully, but an autobiographer still picks and chooses what to tell and how. At the end, I saw the reason for including it, but it still seemed to distract a little from the “main” story… the one I was most interested in.

That story is filled with ups and downs, not necessarily the melodramatic ones of daytime dramas and made-for-TV movies, but just as devastating and encouraging. It’s the day-to-day difficulties and complications that take their toll on a person (either patient or caregiver) and on a relationship. Brabner and Pekar let us see that in their lives, pretty or not.

As Andy’s rehabilitation slowly progresses, with week after week of watching, waiting, and worrying, without easily-visible signs of improvement, I can take some courage from this story. It reminds me that ordeals such as these can have happy endings, that people can sometimes deal with the unendurable, and most of all, that two very-flawed individuals in a sometimes-messed-up relationship can make things work, even under the worst of circumstances.

Wish us luck.

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