BookREVIEW: Probably Nothing
Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books
Reviewer Jane Edwards
It was with some trepidation that I set about reading and reviewing this book. I have to own up to having, not exactly a prejudice against, but certainly a lack of interest in graphic novels. Then the publisher’s blurb described how Probably Nothing is ‘based on the cult online comic Colonomic’ and it had the instant effect of making me feel, at 49, ancient and hopelessly Luddite.
However a little bit of Googling later and I discover that the term graphic novel was popularised as long ago as 1978 by Will Eisner with his book A Contract with God. Today they’re no longer seen as the poor relation of ‘proper books’, but a respected segment of publishing in itself. According to Karen Green, librarian for ancient and medieval history and graphic novel selector at Columbia University, “Graphic novels are the most frequently requested material in our Ivy League request system.” ( MacDonald, 2013) So if it’s good enough for Princeton and Harvard, it’s got to be good enough for me, right? However, when I previously tried graphic novels I invariably ended up finding the cryptically minimal text and artfully naïve graphics frustratingly abbreviated. Call me greedy, but I want more – more plot, more characterisation, more depth – more words quite frankly. So this time round I’m really relieved to report that Matilda Tristram’s book didn’t leaving me wanting for more of any of the above.
Tristram’s book arguably wouldn’t exist without the Internet. At one point she ponders how she’s able to write very openly in her online comic, while not actually wanting to talk about what’s going on with ‘real life’ people. Another time, she finds herself looking through the dead Twitter accounts of cancer sufferers; the modern day equivalent of meditating on the brevity of life in the graveyard I suppose. Both the medium and the subject matter bring into focus how our technology shapes us, how we communicate, how we think about ourselves. Beyond being a funny/tragic cancer/baby comic memoir Probably Nothing is a book about who we are, right now.
From the start the reader is informed that the ‘nine months’ refers to a pregnancy, and the ‘probably nothing’ is actually very much something – a malignant tumour in Tristram’s colon, discovered at week 13 gestation. At the start Tristram lets us know we can expect a happy ending, both in terms of baby born and cancer in remission. I imagine the online comic would have had uncertainty lingering over it, but I liked that the book avoided this dramatic device and felt freed from the distraction of mawkish thoughts – will she/won’t she live/give birth?– and instead was able to fully engage in Tristram’s rollercoaster journey.
It reads very much as a diary in real time – lots of descriptions of food eaten, mainly in fashionable East London; meeting up with friends at exhibitions and coffee shops; restorative weekends at her parents’ house by the sea – and is set out chronologically, except for (my only quibble) a rather unclear jump back and forth in time near the beginning that I found confusing. Others more familiar with the comic book layout might not have this trouble of course.
I was captivated as much by the writer’s story as by her skill in being able to convey a complex, vivid and layered world using minimal words and images. She is quite brilliant at describing the familiar trials and joys that come with pregnancy and motherhood, while also grappling with the cosmic joke of concurrent cancer treatment and fears for her own mortality.
Often women struggle both emotionally and physically when weaning their babies; it signals a loss of intimacy as the baby moves away from total dependence. Reading Tristram describe the final time she breastfeeds her tiny boy, having to stop abruptly and prematurely to resume chemotherapy, was unimaginably sad. Towards the end of treatment her side-effects are so bad that she is physically unable to burp her baby. In contrast, his first smile is able to make her feel ‘possibly happier than she’s ever felt before’.
Tristram has a real talent for conveying moments of great emotion and grief, but she is also laugh out loud funny. Her colostomy bag is both the bane of her treatment and also a great source of comic amusement. Like the time a well-meaning man moves in to touch her pregnancy bump and unexpectedly snuggles up to her belly, not realising he is rubbing his face on a bag of shit. The next drawing is captioned, ‘bit weird’.
She has no time at all for hippy new-age types, dismissing them at one point in two drawings – “Some people suggest I got cancer because I’m holding on to pain.” Followed by, “Would it help release some of my pain if I told you to Fucckk Offfff??” I rather admired her determination to keep on eating pork, pizza, pastries and coffee, and refusing to see cancer as a ‘battle’ that has to be ‘fought’ with green juice and calm thoughts.
She gives counselling almost as short shrift; writing and drawing are her therapy, and comedy is a pretty good defense mechanism. She is also evidently blessed with very strong relationships with her partner Tom, family and friends.
There is something universal in Tristram’s story; it’s an ode to love and to life. I’m going to give this book to my closest girlfriends for Christmas. I know they’ll love it. But I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it to anyone who likes to think about the meaning of things. It might be short on words, but it’s not short on depth.
A final thought – Tristram is thrilled when she discovers someone on an American comics blog calling her a ‘fuckin’ baller.’ Baller, it seems, translates to ‘really cool dude’.
I’m inclined to agree.
MacDonald,Heidi How Graphic Novels Became the Hottest Section in the Library May 03, 2013 Publisher’s Weekly.com.
Jane Edwards is an Integrative psychotherapist in private practice in London and co-founder of LondonPsychotherapyNetwork.com