guest review by Chicago medical student Brian Kim
Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park … When You’re 29 and Unemployed is a beautiful approach to discussing the various facets of death in one’s life. Aneurin Wright depicts his journey in caring for his father, who is dying from emphysema. He illustrates the profound memories that form the foundation for his relationship with his father, as well as fundamental memories that have formulated his father’s relationships. Additionally, he depicts his thoughts and daydreams that highlight his anguish and frustration with his situation and also the reconciliation of his relationship with his father. This depiction is deep, meaningful, and compassionate.
Wright uses a simple, but effective color palette of reds and blues throughout this autobiographical graphic novel. The limited palette serves to enhance the salient points in his experiences in addition to enhancing our own visualization by allowing us to fill in the rest with our own emotions. Additionally, he takes a symbolic approach in drawing himself and his father. He draws himself as a minotaur and his father as a rhino. The anthropomorphism of these animals is particularly effective in conveying the humanity and emotions at each point in the novel. For instance, the body language in young Wright and present-day Wright are the same. We see the young minotaur and muscular adult minotaur with a similar slouched posture and timid gaze. We see relationships at various stages in their life. We see a college-age Wright yelling at his father. We see his father crying. We see them in the present-day reconciling their relationship in touching instances, such as when his father, an architect, and Wright work on a building schematic together.
Throughout the novel, we are exposed to the subtleties and complexities of hospice care. Illustrations of various medicines, ranging from furosemide to morphine, and diseases are interspersed between various narrations and daydreams. For example, to describe the pathophysiology of emphysema, Wright illustrates the customs line at an airport security area. Alveoli are described as customs agents inspecting passports of elements from the outside environment, such as oxygen, and allowing them to proceed to “capillary concourses” or “Hemoglobin Bonding Gates”. At the end of this short lesson in pathophysiology is a depiction of a young Wright purchasing smoking cessation medication for his father’s birthday. The accompanying narration discusses the fatal end stages of emphysema as we see the smoking medication being thrown away in the trash. Powerful scenes like these are plentiful throughout the novel. We are exposed to how Wright responds to learning about the impending death of his father and the memories associated with each particular experience. We can see the anguish and helplessness through his use of ellipses in discussing the inevitable demise of his father’s lung functions.
Additionally, we are exposed to the history and texture of the various relationships between each character. I found the illustrations of his father and his mother, who are divorced, to be particularly moving. Though the novel largely focuses on Wright and his father, there are brief moments where we see his mother and father interact. These moments are dense with emotion. We see thought bubbles from his father, who is trying to express his regrets and apologies to his mother. One thought bubble contains a powerful, vivid collage of divorce papers, his father busy at work ignoring his wife, and his fits of drunken rages. Beneath it, we see his present-day father, thinking and staring at the ground in sadness. With just one page, we learn an entire history of a marriage and the effects on the people involved.
I could go on and on about the wonders of the various images and sections in Things to Do, but I believe that would be a disservice to future readers and do not wish to spoil the experience of seeing these images and reading the narration for the first time. I highly recommend this graphic novel. Wright honestly depicts the experience of dealing with hospice. The range of moods in the story reflects this honesty. There were times when the scene was humorous and joyous and there were times when it was dark and solemn. This is a graphic novel that everyone can relate to.