Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner


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I know some will think I’m committing heresy when I say I did not like this nonfiction graphic novel.  I imagine some of my dislike is due to the fact that I’m also reading So Much For That by Lionel Shriver, which also details a character’s battle with cancer and how it affects her care-giver.  So Much For That (fiction)is just a phenomenal book on all levels. I know the supposed beauty of Harvey Pekar’s writing is the simplicity, but when I read it in conjunction with Shriver’s book, it just made Our Cancer Year seem flat, amateurish, and poorly written.

Pekar and Brabner’s account of Harvey’s battle with lymphoma is poignant enough, but it takes some time to get to Harvey even going to the doctor.  The first quarter of the book is all about Joyce’s friends and dealings with the international peace movement, which seems completely disjointed and… well, self-centered.  Characters just appear and the reader is supposed to care about them because Joyce tells us in a few panels that they have had tough lives and are good people.  We get brief updates on these characters through the book, but again it’s like someone telling you about a friend of a friend who you don’t know… while the main character (and her husband) is writhing on the floor from chemo treatments.  And essentially, it all comes across as part of Joyce’s political agenda, which really should have been a completely unrelated book.  SPOILER ALERT: These people, who we really don’t know, come to visit at the end and it helps “heal” Harvey’s depression.  I imagine learning that he beat the cancer has something to do with it.

The dialogue and inner-dialogue throughout seems very, very simplistic and unrealistic.  There are parts where I felt like I was watching that scene in all CSI episodes where they over-explain everything they’re doing so everyone with a fifth grade education can understand it.  It just doesn’t work well in literature, which is disappointing because Pekar is a literature lover.

I wanted to like the book because I have heard so many times that it is a classic, but I just couldn’t get past what seemed like poor writing to me.  I have not read any of the American Splendor series, so I have no way of telling how much of this book is Pekar’s writing and how much is Brabner’s, whose character I didn’t care for.  I saw the movie adaptation when it came out years ago, but honestly the only thing I remember is that Robert Crumb was Pekar’s friend.  Maybe watching it again would give me a better appreciation for the graphic novel.

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