September 28, 2006

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Cancer Vixen: A True Story, by Marisa Acocella Marchetto (Knopf, 2006, 212 pages)
Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics, by Miriam Engelberg
(HarperCollins, 2006, 126 pages)

Marisa Marchetto is a cartoonist for The New Yorker. She works for Glamour magazine. She hangs with the glitterati, she wears Carrie Bradshaw shoes – but, still, she puts her breasts in the mammography machine one at a time, just like everybody else.

Cancer Vixen is Marchetto’s riveting account, in glossy color cartoons, of her experience with breast cancer. It also pulls in her experiences with love, romance, career success and 9/11.

Diagnosed in 2004, at age 43, she was (finally) engaged to marry a hot-shot Italian restaurateur. Work was going well, her social life was going well, she was shopping for a wedding gown. And then came cancer, which she draws in one panel as a deathly gray hooded void knocking on her door and crashing her life.

Like all the other characters – Marchetto herself, her fiancé, her parents and friends and doctors – it’s drawn cleanly and crisply, with personality.

At another point Marchetto draws the cancer cells as green meany faces giving the finger from a petri dish (a doctor had referred to “angry” cells).

Cancer Vixen has a brash feel and brings boldness and life to a story about life-threateningness.

In pictures, Marchetto shows us the black hole of the moment of diagnosis; “The Cancer Guessing Game” of speculating why and how; the false faces worn by patients and their supporters to hide fear or anger or despair or indifference.

Much of this story is particular to Marchetto – the sexy Maserati-driving Italian fiancé she fears losing, her career and its intersection with 9/11, her lack of health insurance at the time of her diagnosis – and much is universal, like the onslaught of advice from every direction, the supportive/nagging friends, the overwhelming number of decisions to make and Google searches to conduct.

And of course there’s so much that’s relevant to everyone; the underlying message is about being good to yourself.

Miriam Engelberg, author of Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, has a hard time being entirely good to herself. Her memoir has the self-deprecating intellectual loner feel common to a certain segment of the graphic novel world. Miriam is extremely neurotic, mentally torturing herself with inner dialogue – some of her worries, though, we can just chalk up to cancer; probably even non-neurotic patients experience the conflict of wanting to talk about it versus not wanting to talk about it, the self-consciousness that comes with the diagnosis, and the pressure to enjoy life more than ever, or at least get really meaningful really fast.

In the face of such pressures, Miriam finds herself needing to retreat inward, self-soothe, escape – into such non-meaningful, non-thrilling activities as the daily crossword puzzle, the kind of thing she never would have bothered with before. Thus the book’s title.

Compared with Marchetto’s steady plotline, Miriam’s story feels more like a series of vignettes. Clever, cartoonist-type vignettes, about shopping for wigs, brainstorming how to break the news to people at work, facing contradictions from different doctors, living with this new elephant in your own mental great room – and about becoming an expert on cancer, as if it’s your new second line of work. “I have small cell lung carcinoma,” says a new acquaintance. “Ooh—sorry. I don’t speak lung cancer,” replies Miriam.

Like Marchetto’s book, Shallower can’t help conveying the way cancer separates the patient from her surroundings and her peers—and then how within the community of cancer patients she finds divisions, even sometimes a kind of keeping score as patients gauge their own health by comparing and contrasting with others. (“Remember, no judging! You cannot fail at the visualization process!” says a cartoon support group leader. “Untrue,” comments cartoonist Miriam in the margins.)

Both books mention the perks, if you will, of illness: how support comes out of the woodwork, how “playing the cancer card” can make life easier. Both authors are intimately familiar with the intense wondering why and how.

Both close with meditations on perspective. Marchetto clearly has gained some, which she renders in vivid color. Engelberg is still tortured, but from a slightly wider perspective—about not having enough perspective.

Vixen is the more enjoyable, the more polished and artistic by far; Shallower is witty and anxious and looks like something your geeky friend would draw in her high school notebook. Both are other people’s actual stories worth reading.

Cancer Vixen: A True Story A

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics B

— Lisa Parsons


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