Roz Chast has been contributing to “The New Yorker” for more than three decades — editor David Remnick has described her as “the magazine’s only certifiable genius” — in addition to having written and drawn multiple books for adults and children, including “The Alphabet From A to Y with Bonus Letter Z!,” which was written by Steve Martin.
What distinguishes her work at its best is the way that the world of her comics is so unique, so strange, so obviously the result of a singular vision of the world while remaining completely recognizable and relatable. More than one person has argued that a well-crafted cartoon character should be recognized by their silhouette, and Chast is one of those cartoonists whose work is instantly recognizable by her style. More than her line work and the way in which she draws is the sensibility underlying her pieces. It is funny and terrifying, relatable and abrasive; her comics contain our own thoughts and feelings, transcribed from our brain, and seem to the product of someone we would never want to meet.
This has perhaps never been quite so clear as it is in her new book “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir,” which details the last few years of her parents lives. That Chast’s book has become celebrated is not surprising given its subject matter and her considerable skill. Few, however, expected that the book would be a finalist for the National Book Award — an incredibly rare feat for a graphic novel, and the first time a cartoonist has been nominated in the nonfiction category.
Her parents were unique people. In Chast’s own words her parents were soulmates, and talked about themselves like that. The two met as children and except for war, work and going to the bathroom, they were together ever since. This suggests that there was often little room for someone else in their relationship and it’s clear from her description that there was an element of that in her relationship with her parents, her mother in particular. There’s the oft-quoted proverb by Tolstoy that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. It’s unlikely that Chast believes that, though one could joke that it’s because Chast’s characters don’t trust happiness.
In this book she explores her parents’ uniqueness but also the universality of her experience of being a daughter and later a caretaker to aging and dying parents. The details of those declines and deaths — and the complex relationships between parent and child — are unique to each family, but it is that experience which is unites everyone and in the pages of “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Chast finds a way to depict her parents as unique individuals even as she find humor and universality in her experience.
Consider the single page cartoon that is “Gallant and Goofus: Daughter-Caretaker Edition.” For anyone who has been through this experience, it’s a great distillation of one’s complex feelings. Speaking with Ms. Chast, it is fascinating to learn was that she likely thinks — and over-thinks — her comics less than anyone else. For her, the process of making a cartoon and even crafting a book is a very instinctive process.
“I had a feeling that I wasn’t the only one to go through the process of having their parents die on them,” she joked. “When I’m working, I’m thinking about what is funny or interesting to me. I really don’t know how other people think, but I hope people can relate.”
The book is largely cartoons, in a style that will be familiar to anyone who has read her work, where some pages are text heavy and others less so. “It was very instinctive. Some things were purely visual, some were purely text, some were combinations. And there were photos, and non-cartoon drawings,” Chast said. “I just wanted to tell the story the best way I could.”
There are other parts of the book she felt required photographs. “Some things — like the photos of the things from my parents’ apartment, especially of the ‘cheese-tainer,’ or the drawer of jar lids, or the photos of the rooms — I guess, in a weird way, I didn’t want anyone to think I was making this stuff up,” Chast said. “Or exaggerating when I said my parents could not throw anything away.”
In a sense, this is how Chast has always worked, though she hesitates to say that she works based on instinct. “Kind of a combination of instinct and structure and worry and trying this and trying that, seeing what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
“It was a very different process from putting together a cartoon collection for many different reasons,” Chast continued. “I really had to think about how I wanted to structure it. It couldn’t be simply chronological, even though I knew, in a general way, that was the ‘arc’ it would follow.”
It would be easy to describe the book as being cruel or cold. But in one of the aspects of the book that is most notable, it does not possess a gauzy, sentimental look, where the saintly daughter remembers how much she loves her parents so every struggle and worry is minimized in order to flatter the author’s heroic selflessness.
The book concludes with a series of pages where Chast drew her mother at the end of her life, providing the sense of her mother fading away in a way that is quiet and sad. It is also the point where there is little left to say, and it’s possible to see in those pencil drawings their creator’s affection and love. It’s clearly tempered with many other emotions, but in those last moments, it’s all too clear how Chast felt.
In the book’s epilogue, Chast reveals that both her parents were cremated and that she keeps their ashes in a closet, still unsure of what to do with them. It’s funny and strange, but it also provides a chance to show that they have stayed with her. Maybe that’s not obvious to some, but she did spend a great deal of time and energy writing and drawing a book about them after they both passed away. Even if she was depicting her frustrating, exhausting fights with them, which paint them all in a complicated light, she found a way to keep them alive for just a little longer.
I had to ask her whether she’s taken something away from those events and reflecting on them and if she has taken anything from how she’s acted and thought about aging and death in her own life.
“I can only address being extremely old from my own perspective, not from the perspective of someone who is extremely old,” she explained. “Maybe your expectations diminish to the point where lying in bed, drinking Ensure, sleeping and waking only to have someone else wipe your bottom is ok, as long as you’re not in pain, and no matter how much it costs. From my point of view right now? Doesn’t appeal.”
One of her revelations in the epilogue is that she continues to dream of her parents to this day. Despite the fact that we had been talking about her life, it felt almost too personal to ask as a final question if she still dreams of them, but her answer made asking it worthwhile.
“Yes. I do.”
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