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To be honest, Relatively Indolent but Relentless, Matt Freedman’s artist’s book recounting his 35-day incarceration on Planet Cancer, got me at the dedication: “For Radiant Jude.”
Jude is the sculptor Jude Tallichet, Freedman’s wife, and radiant shares its Latin root, radiare (to shine or radiate), with radiation, the life-saving dispenser of intolerable pain that takes on an all-consuming, demonic presence in the book. Compacted together, radiant and radiation perfectly encapsulate the narrative’s core, a steadily escalating fever dream fueled by unbridled self-exposure and tenacious, pitiless humor.
Some background: in 2012, not long after the completion of his solo exhibition at Valentine, The Golem of Ridgewood — an installation so densely packed with context and subtext that I devoted a two-part review to it in Hyperallergic Weekend — Freedman was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, described on the book’s back cover as “a rare cancer that had spread from his tongue to his neck to his lungs by the time it was discovered.”
The cancer, as indicated in the book’s title, is relatively indolent but relentless, meaning that it is very slow-growing but also very hard to kill. It would have to be literally burned out over the course of 35 days. Protons were aimed at the tumor growing at the base of his tongue and photons were used against the ones in the lymph nodes on his neck. Chemotherapy was added to the mix as a means to sensitize the cancer cells as well as combat the tumors in his lungs.
Just before he and Jude drove with their dog Fleurry to Boston to begin treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, Freedman was given a blank 240-page sketchbook by his colleagues and students at the University of Pennsylvania. With a commitment to numerical exactitude that would become mildly alarming as the story progresses, Freedman decided that he would complete four pages a day, a routine that would fill the entire book by the end of his treatment. That book became this book, which reproduces the artist’s handwritten text and distinctively loopy line drawings, executed in black pen with touches of red and an occasional accent of yellow or blue.
In a preface to this edition, published this month by Seven Stories Press (a limited run of 100 facsimile sketchbooks was produced to coincide with the artist’s exhibition, The Devil Tricked Me, at Studio 10 in the spring of 2013), Freedman writes, “I began every page with no idea of how I would fill it up. I just let the words and images circle around each other.”
That being the case, Freedman has tapped not only his extraordinarily fecund comic imagination and associative range — as demonstrated by the scrupulously deranged timeline serving as backstory for The Golem of Ridgewood — but also a rare set improvisational chops. Not for nothing, it would seem, does he bring a John Coltrane CD to a radiation session; Relatively Indolent is a long-form riff continually circling back to its central themes of survival, pain and food while hooking in strains of autobiography, family dynamics, dreams, baseball stats, historical markers and such incidentals as Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 presidential election, venturing wider and deeper with each go-round.
If getting through the treatment intact is Freedman’s number one concern, a close second is keeping his weight from falling below a level that would trigger the insertion of a feeding tube; of course, eating is a tough row to hoe if your tongue is being irradiated to a burnt crust, turning every bit of food into a mouthful of razors and pins. An entirely separate torment is the skin sloughing off his neck from the photon rays.
Initially Freedman stubbornly refuses pain meds, fearing an inability to concentrate if he took them, and resists succumbing to a liquid diet, fearing that it would fail to maintain his weight and inevitably lead to the feeding tube; the suspense he builds into avoiding those possibilities rivals the tension of an espionage thriller.
If an artist is like everyone else, only more so, a sick artist ups the ante. Freedman acutely feels his increasing isolation and dependencies, some forced upon him, some self-imposed, and elucidates them with cold candor. Perhaps the most trenchant lines in the book occur on Day 28, in which he reflects not on what he’s learned from this experience, but what he hasn’t:
It’s remarkable what a trivial little person is revealed when everything is stripped away by drugs and pain and fear. I remember baseball statistics and family stories. I parse the meaning of phlegm. There isn’t a lot of thinking left in me now. Just a feral monkey trying to make it out of the jungle. […] Things have fallen apart. All I have left in my head is literally the pain in my tongue. I want to get a bigger picture, more perspective, but I cannot. All I can do is dwell on the pain and the limitations the drugs in my system have placed on my imagination and my ability to reason. I’m pretty much shot.
One of the many paradoxes expressed in the book is the comfort, for lack of a better term (in med-speak it’s the “secondary gain of the sick role”), that Freedman begins to take in his illness as the treatment wears on. Despite the grinding routine and endless, excruciating pain, he understands how much his condition has simplified his life:
Only four more days to go with this, and in a way, this is the easy part. All I have to do is endure the physical ordeal, and I’ve done my job. It’s special to be sick at the hospital, it’s not special to live with being sick when you’re back home trying to live a normal life. I’m not sure I will be so good at that.
He even makes a point, once the treatment has ended, to retrieve the mask that was clamped over his face during the radiation sessions. But as Hurricane Sandy unleashes its devastation up and down the East Coast and Freedman remains fixated on finishing a bowl of soup, he starts to wonder what kind of monster he’s become:
Whatever else this means, I think my head is now firmly up my ass for the duration, and nothing, not world changing floods, civic breakdown, a presidential election, complete loss of contact with my wife, my family, my students, my job — is going to wrest my attention from my roster of complaints: sore neck, inedible food, fear of feeding tube.
Freedman, who was once a cartoonist for The Onion, has a remarkable command of line, even in the seemingly offhand drawings that fill this book. He embellishes the story of how he met Jude — she drove him to the hospital after he split his right thumb in two while casting iron for a graduate school project — with a drawing of his injured hand that’s impossible to look at without wincing.
Like much of Relatively Indolent but Relentless, that sequence is simultaneously harrowing and deeply, disturbingly hilarious. I found the humor in the book, and my reaction to it, something that I needed to think carefully about. Freedman himself makes an attempt to distance himself from his own tendencies, writing on November 4th, “This cartoon-y format creates a bias toward humor and lightheartedness, but I don’t feel like that at all,” though on the very next page he draws caricatures of his mother and his brother Bart, who are taking shifts caring for him, as two Buckingham Palace sentries, along with a picture of Bart serving him a thick bloody steak instead of miso soup and steamed fish.
In a disconcerting way, Freedman’s humor absolves us of survivor’s guilt. It’s a coping mechanism he bestows upon us not to feed our denial or set himself apart as a stoic deadpanning his way through hell, but to fulfill art’s social function as illumination and distraction. He fills us with his life as he lived it, ensnaring us in an extremity of emotional engagement that involuntarily submits our experience to his. For a moment, we forget who we are.
It is tempting to invoke magical thinking and conclude that Freedman’s pain will never be our pain — it’s too rare a disease, too draconian a treatment — but we’re only forestalling an acknowledgment of some other calamity-in-waiting, if one hasn’t struck already. The obsessive, prickly, slapstick, exasperating way Freedman deals with his personal disaster consoles us, in its flawed humanness, before the fact. If our laughter is uneasy, it may be because we can’t pretend to know, under similar circumstances, whether our jokes would ever be this funny.
Relatively Indolent but Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal by Matt Freedman is available from St. Mark’s Bookshop and other independent booksellers.