Cancer, Chemo, Comedy: David Brody on Matt Freedman’s Cancer Treatment Journal
Artist Matt Freedman’s written and drawn memoir, Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal, is not your typical chronicle of illness and rehabilitation. Neither recovery drama nor tear-jerking tragedy, it’s instead nearer to comedy. Both the tone and the format are semi-comic, with fluid illustrations, diagrams, and panel-like sequences floating on waves of hand-written text. Sometimes Freedman’s drawings take the foreground, with words functioning as captions, but mostly text and image create a hybrid that is surprisingly seamless — and absolutely compelling, since his wit is always to the point, even in extremities of hellish pain, anxiety, or drugged oblivion. Equally sharp is his draftsmanship, honed by the self-imposed mission to fill four notebook pages a day during the two months in 2012 when he underwent intensifying radiation and chemotherapy for cancer of the tongue, neck, and lungs.
If traditional illness narratives tend, understandably, to be lacking in humor, Freedman’s over-analytic mind cannot but go there, even with death looming. (The current health of the author, a beloved friend of this writer and many others, is thankfully vigorous, though still endangered.) At his first radiation treatment, with proton guns firing at his diseased throat, he smells the back of his tongue burning. “I’m cooking,” he realizes. The sting of the observation is eased by the cartoonish rendering of his prone head’s cross-section, a Dristan® ad gone rogue. Similar images get more anatomically precise yet more gruesomely hilarious as the treatment progresses: razor blades, scissors, and swords through the tongue; a burn pattern on the skin resembling a map of Russia; stripes of loose flesh in his neck, “like from a hot pizza cheese burn.” Color appears rarely but to strong effect, primarily when felt-tip red is used as bitter punctuation to locate this widening gyre of pain. But when associative portals open onto vistas of memory Freedman can wield the same color like a fireballer’s change-up –– as when the number five (a parking stall at the hospital) recalls Joe DiMaggio’s uniform number, and thus a lush image of the Yankee Clipper kissing Marilyn Monroe’s flaming red lips.
“It’s remarkable what a trivial little person is revealed when everything is stripped away by drugs and pain and fear,” Freedman remarks. Sports trivia, at any rate, assert a weird priority in the book, with other hospital parking slots calling forth Ted Williams’s .406 batting average in ’41 or –– more borderline autistic –– Lyman Bostock’s .388 or Rob Deer’s 230 lifetime homeruns, each such jog of memory occasioning a fluent sketch of the player’s trading card apotheosis. Power hitters loom with similar iconic weight above Raymond Pettibon’s punk-erudite obsessions, although where Pettibon is occult, Freedman is communicative, leading us by the hand through the educational zig-zag of his thoughts.
Freedman has often played with academic mannerisms in his performances and collaborative instigations. They are absurd events, such as a recent conflation of the French Revolution and the U.S. Open tennis finals, re-enacted shot-by-shot in real time, with losers guillotined; or live lectures with an easel and Sharpie®, covering obscure historical subjects, accompanied by a jazz drummer. Even in his primary medium, sculpture/installation, Freedman never loses touch with caricatural literalness, nor with a sense of pedagogical mission. His 2012 solo show at Valentine Gallery in Queens, “The Golem of Ridgewood,”included numerous papier-mâché props, some humble and some lavish. The bluntly beautiful, chromatically rich sculptures helped tell the true story of Jewish resistance to the Nazification of Ridgewood’s German immigrants during the early 1940s, a forgotten local history that Freedman utterly entangled with tall tales, myth, and farce.
Relatively Indolent is full of similar entanglements, side-trips from his daily accounts of inscrutable doctors and protocols. We travel backwards in time to harsh assessments of Freedman’s childhood self; and to the day he met his future wife after accidently cutting off his finger in a sculpture studio. (She drove him to the hospital.) We witness Hurricane Sandy through the lens of Freedman’s exile at a Boston hospital, sharing his frustration and guilt at having to focus narrowly on his own pain.
Still, the unprecedented ravages of Sandy call forth affectingly drawn montages, distilled from CNN videos and news photographs. Not only does Freedman’s utilitarian, seat-of-the-pants draftsmanship manage punchline humor and informational razzmatazz (as with the anatomical cut-aways), but it efficiently captures each of the five stages of grief. Crucially, the publisher’s preservation of the hand-written notebook text –– sometimes scrawled on a bus ride or under the effects of strong painkillers, but always legible –– slows the eye, just enough, from reading to looking. That allows Freedman’s resolutely unstylish drawings to sail past an initial repellency, while we learn to read his distinctive, sketchy line. Even as we become addicted, Freedman bears down, expanding his inky range and power, gaining confidence as the work progresses.
Throughout, Freedman records unsentimental self-evaluations, of his work, his thoughts, and his life. The book’s title refers to the slow but steady growth of his rare form of cancer, but “relatively indolent” also serves as a thematic self-assessment, especially as regards his career. Even as he wonders about his lack of focus and killer instinct, the title’s sardonic pun typifies Freedman’s relentless approach: to milk doubt, failure, and anxiety so as to transcend the pretensions of artistic ego and careerism. In all his activities, Freedman remains a truth teller and a joke teller, a principled dreamer in cynic’s clothing –– never more so than in this brilliantly honest and defiantly funny book.
Matt Freedman, Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014). 240 pages, illustrations, ISBN 978-1609805166. $24