You won't be able to put this book down. But will you ever pick it up? That's the question.
It took me half a year to read Special Exits.
Six months ago, I received a galley proof of comics artist Joyce Farmer's new memoir, in which she meticulously and unsparingly depicts what it was like to watch her parents succumb to illness and infirmity over the course of several years.
Farmer is known for the feminist underground comics she created in the 70s, many of which bore gleefully unprintable titles. She's been working on Special Exits for over a decade, and it's one of those books that the comics community has been eagerly awaiting for ... well. Over a decade.
And yet it sat, unopened, in a pile of books by my bedside. For half a year.
It's not that it's a particularly thick book, or a difficult one. And it's certainly not that I've got anything against the graphic memoir as a form.
No, it's just that, when that copy of Special Exits arrived, my father had just been diagnosed with cancer. Hokay, I thought. Let's just mooooove this puppy to the bottom of the stack for now.
Weeks passed. Pop tried chemo, to no avail. Pop tried other things. To no avail. Months passed. He got sicker.
And all the while, this damn book glowered at me from its perch on the bedside table.
Every so often I'd find myself sort of ... sidling up to it, as if it were a dangerous but sleeping animal. I'd let my eyes flick across the jacket copy:
"Joyce Farmer's memoir chronicles the decline of the author's parents' health, their relationship with one another and with their their daughter, and how they cope with the day-to-day emotional fragility of the most taxing time of their lives."
Coping! Emotional fragility! Taxing! Woo!
Yeah, I thought, no way in hell. Not now.
Pop died in September. Through the funeral and its aftermath — a time of poor concentration, deadened senses and lots and lots of terrible, mordant jokes — the book waited patiently. I'd throw it a wary glance as I perused the latest copy of, say, Thor: The Mighty Avenger — an act which I must have regarded as somehow defiant, at the time.
I finally read Special Exits last weekend. And I am here to tell you: It was tough. It was not fun.
But it was truthful. It was specific.
And it ... helped.
In this, it was utterly unlike the book on grieving that a well-meaning relative pressed into my hands. That book's blandishments felt feathery and abstract; they had nothing to do with Pop, or with how I felt about him.
Special Exits, on the other hand, is all about specificity. Farmer captures the tiniest, most mundane — and at times ugliest — details of caring for someone you love, and watching them pass from you.
It's bracingly clear-eyed and unsentimental: Farmer never idealizes her father and stepmother, they're simply two flawed people who've shared a long life together, and who occasionally grow frustrated and angry with one another and with their respective situations.
Her pages and panels seem crowded with detail — deliberately and effectively so, to mirror the way her parents' house, and their lives, fall steadily into clutter and disrepair.
After Pop died, I found myself surveying the shelf of sympathy cards Mom received — all those purple-and-orange sunsets, all those wildflowers shot through glaucoma-filters. So full of sincere yet generic platitudes.
Special Exits doesn't offer such soft-focus reassurance. Instead, it says, simply and without syrup, "This is what happened to my parents Rachel and Lars. They were demanding and difficult; they were funny and they loved each other. They were here, and now they're not, and it sucks that they're gone.
"But then, it's supposed to."