I guess Roz Chast isn’t to everyone’s taste, because if she were, there would be an animated series based on her work that ran for over twenty years. In some ways, that’s for the best, because I haven’t seen a good “Life in Hell” cartoon for who knows how long, but I can still depend on opening The New Yorker and enjoying a Chastian respite. I also think my Roz Chast mugs would have sold out sooner (yes, we have some) and also someone would still be publishing the cartoon volumes I collected in my twenties. Oh, well, cartoon collections are just one of those genres that don’t seem to sell as well in book form as they used to. Ask Andrews McMeel.
But graphic novels and nonfiction? They seem to work just fine, in fact, have crowded out their shorter paneled cousins. And that is why I am thrilled that Roz Chast has taken to the long form in her new memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, May 6) That said, it’s not the most superhero friendly plot in the universe, despite its inevitability. It’s about Chast’s parents, and specifically, their slow decline in their nineties, but that slow decline reaches back to their young adulthood, their parenting of Roz in their eighties, her jumping ship to Connecticut and not visiting them for a good decade, ad just about everything in between.
Roz Chast’s parents were the children of European Jewish immigrants. Each of them spent their entire careers in the New York school system. If my mom didn’t work for her mother, she definitely worked for someone just like her, as my own mother started late, after seeing so many of her friends comfortable in their teaching careers, and as a result, she bounced from school to school, and found a niche in special ed, not necessarily because it was where she best fit, but because it was where there were jobs. I will say no more of that. This isn’t about my life, after all.
Ms. Chast has the ability to see the absurdity in all of us, but most of the time, that lens is turned outwards. I saw my family, as well as myself, in the hoarding, in the ability to criticize someone else’s habits while oblivious to one’s own, and in that strange feeling that your parent has become closer to the caregiver than she is to you. Chast’s parents had what can only be called a codependent relationship, with little outside contact with friends, especially after they retired. They lived in a relatively nondescript apartment in a nondescript part of Brooklyn. And then they had to leave and learn how to be social with other folks, and it wasn’t easy for a mother who was always right and a father who never stopped talking about random trivia, and that’s before he started drifting into dementia.
Chast’s ability to combine the absurd with the truth and touch a nerve, and combine that with some free floating anxiety, is unparalleled, and her illustrations have always paired perfectly with her thoughts. I was particularly taken with Roz’s conversation with her mom about getting a space heater.
It’s all illustrations, with a few notable exceptions, such as the tour of her parents abandoned apartment after they decamped for Connecticut. That said, if you could photograph a Roz Chast story, these photos are what they’d look like. You even get to see the inevitable crazy closet (!) where Mom took her first fall. Oh, and a few family photos.
I was drawn to her mom’s 97th birthday party on April 3, 2009, most notably as I have been to these sorts of parties, and my mother tells me about a few she attends each year (or sometimes doesn’t attend). Plus also it was an auspicious day for Boswell, the first day we were opened for business.
In the end, Chast watches her frustrations fall away after her parents pass, particularly her father, with whom she believed she shared a similar temperament. Dealing with her mom was more difficult, which was why this book reminded me a bit of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother. It’s funny how in the conscious ways we become very different from our parents, and in subconscious ways we grow to be just like them. And however Chast was like her mom and dad, the one thing she tried to do was crack her mother’s mantra, “I’m not your friend, I’m your mother.” It’s something that a lot of folks her age have dealt with from their childhood. I guess we’ll see how the next generation of kids raises their kids; will they follow the lead of their parents or snap back to the ways of their grandparents?
In the end, there are two things I came away with from reading Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? First of all, I came away with a greater understanding of Chast. But second of all, I came away with a greater understanding of myself. That's heady stuff for a book of cartoons, and I wouldn't expect anything less.
New York Times article from Sarah Lyall.