JUNE 27, 2014
THE NEW YORKER‘S editor David Remnick has dubbed Roz Chast “the magazine’s only certifiable genius,” but to some of the magazine’s readers, she is just another cartoonist in the stable of regulars — the one who sketches neurotic New Yorkers in absurdist scenes with scratchily handwritten captions. Chast’s new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, should help the unconverted better understand Remnick’s effusive praise. The book — a memoir in words, drawings, and a few photographs — offers a very funny, very moving account of Chast’s experience caring for her dying parents. It is a sometimes-harrowing memoir of a child’s ambivalent relationship with difficult parents, and of the “painful, humiliating, long-lasting, complicated, and hideously expensive” travels they take together through the contemporary U.S. eldercare-medical complex.
We’ve always suspected that the children and parents in Chast’s cartoons — neurotic, hypochondria-prone, cheap, mildly agoraphobic — had to be based on the author’s own family. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast for the first time narrates in detail the story of her 1950s–60s “Deep Brooklyn” upbringing as the only child of Elizabeth and George Chast, schoolteacher children of Russian Jewish immigrants: “I was quite aware that my parents had had tough times — way, way tougher than mine . . . Between their one-bad-thing-after-another lives and the Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, in which they’d both lost family — it was amazing that they weren’t crazier than they were.” With her characteristic drawings, fleshed out with additional documentation (including actual photographs of the contents of her parents’ closets, and poems written by her mother in the hospital), Chast attempts to explain how they all got as crazy as they were, especially in those last few years together. A rave endorsement from Alison Bechdel, author of the comparably-titled Are You My Mother?, adorns the back of Chast’s book. Bechdel’s example may have suggested one path for how a cartoonist might successfully become a graphic novelist/memoirist. The timing seems right for Chast, who was inducted as a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013, and whose reliable brilliance in a relatively low-status medium has been taken for granted.
Chast belongs with Woody Allen and Philip Roth in the ranks of the key forgers of our image of the neurotic late 20th-century Jewish New Yorker. Her memoir makes explicit what is implicit in the cartoons — that her characters’ debilitating anxieties are historically rooted in their identities as the descendants of European Jewish immigrants, left borderline-nutcase by family histories of displacement, pogroms, and concentration camps. Not “survivors” or immigrants themselves, they cannot claim the gravitas that belongs to their parents’ generation, but are left with un-heroic, minor, second-order emotional baggage. In Chast’s comic entitled “Mental Baggage Claim,” travelers looking for their suitcases at the airport observe: “Excuse me, I believe I see my resentment of physical beauty;” “Oh, there’s my hypochondria coming out right now.”
Elizabeth and George emerge here as the primal sources of Chast’s own mental baggage. She depicts her father as maddening, but “kind and sensitive.” “He knew that my mother had a terrible temper, and that she could be overpowering. She had a thick skin. He, like me, did not. She often accused my father of ‘walking around with his feelers out.’” Here Chast offers a brilliant sketch of her father that depicts him at once as a prototypical Chast middle-aged man, of the sort familiar from her comics, but imbued with a deeply felt sympathy and sadness. George is balding, with stringy, electrically curled brown hair hard to distinguish from Chast’s ubiquitous anxiety lines, scribbled graphic curls that she uses to signify both movement and psychological stress. The downturned, unhappy frown of his mouth and the etched lines on his forehead and around his eyes and mouth all possess the same graphic tremor, suggesting near-panic emotions that cannot be stilled or calmed. Chast’s quavery lines recall those of Charles M. Shultz — think of the way Shultz’s energy lines, when Lucy pulls away the football, visually echo the few waving strands of hair emerging from Charlie Brown’s bald head as he flies through the air. Thought bubbles emerge from George’s head: “Why did X say that?” “Was that an insult?” “Y hates me.” In a Kafkaesque addition, Chast has literalized George’s emotional “feelers” in the form of long, yellow insect antennae emerging from his head that tremble and emit buzzing warning signals. George is not simply anxious and sensitive; he has become a fantastical being designed for maximal anxiety, his sensorium molded for damagingly acute perception of any possible slight or emotional risk.
“Codependent? Of course we’re codependent,” Chast quotes her mother saying of her father, who chimes in, “Thank God!” “They were a tight little unit,” Chast comments. “Aside from WWII, work, illness, and going to the bathroom, they did everything together.” As a child, Chast felt claustrophobically trapped within her parents’ lives, and kept herself at a certain distance from them once she left home, although she also sometimes wished for an intimacy with them she could not experience (especially with her mother). In the last few years of their lives, their physical deterioration brings Chast home. “[N]ow I was back. I didn’t particularly like it, and they probably didn’t either. Still, aside from running away from the whole situation . . . I didn’t see a way out.” This comment accompanies an image of Chast sitting between her parents on a doily-festooned couch, with a sign pointing to her head: “You are here. Suck it up.”
The book begins with a photo of the toddler Roz with her parents — an earlier daughter had died after childbirth — and then turns to a full-page strip narrating the state of equilibrium and denial in which the story begins. Roz makes one lame attempt to open a conversation about end-of-life plans with her parents, who pretend they have no idea what she’s talking about. The strip ends with a split panel showing both Roz and her parents separately sighing in relief that they managed to avoid the Talk. Next, in a chapter titled “The Beginning of the End,” Roz explains how it started to become clear that her 90-something parents “were slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age — Spry! Totally independent! Just like a normal adult, but with silver hair! — and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and thus not a part of this culture. Something Was Coming Down the Pike.” The rest of the book unflinchingly details the events leading to her parents’ leaving their Brooklyn apartment, where they’d lived for 48 years, for a ruinously expensive eldercare facility near Chast’s Connecticut home; her mother’s accidental fall and hospitalization; her father’s increasing senile dementia prior to his death; and her mother’s extended decline, with hospice care, before her own eventual passing.
One needs no particular interest in Chast’s previous work to appreciate Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? But for a longtime Chast fan, the book seems to offer a key to her previous, less explicitly autobiographical comics.
One example is a coinage of Chast’s mother’s: that of a “conspiracy of inanimate objects.” The phrase captures the sense of a world of banal yet strange things, defining us and making claims on us. The very first cartoon Chast published in The New Yorker in 1978 — reproduced, as are all of those discussed here, in Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, & Health-Inspected Cartoons by Roz Chast, 1978 –2006 — nicely evokes this abiding obsession. In some respects, this 1978 cartoon does not yet quite look like a Chast. The ink lettering and the drawings are slightly too firm and decided, lacking the neurotic scratchy quality that became her signature. Entitled “Little Things,” it illustrates a range of invented, absurd objects: “chent,” “spak,” “redge,” “bie, “enker,” and so on, some looking vaguely like mathematical symbols, some like broken-off pieces of something that you might find in the back of a kitchen drawer.
Chast’s subsequent work overflows with “little things,” banal junk or detritus, often depicted via an almost anthropological gaze, as of an outsider considering the mysterious and melancholy remains of a vanished civilization. A comic called “Proof of Life on Earth” features, in its dossier, “Last week’s issue of a TV magazine,” “Cousin Jimmy’s intramural basketball-playoff trophy,” “Pocket lint,” “Notebooks galore,” and finally a “Sworn statement from a notary public” that affirms, “This hereby certifies that [scribbled name] is actually here on this very planet.” The joke implies a back-story of a philosophically inclined child who is deeply puzzled to find herself in this strange family, in this random neighborhood, on this planet.
Things for Chast are generally out of place or obsolete. They bear information that is likely no longer relevant and impossible now fully to interpret, and they are embedded in networks of commerce that are equally mysterious and confounding. One recurring motif concerns New York’s inexplicable shops, as in “M + O Typewriter Supplies” (part of the cartoon “Stores of Mystery”): “This place has been closed whenever one has walked past it. However, it’s always there, meaning somebody is continuing to pay rent on it. Why?” The window display contains a single decrepit and cobweb-festooned typewriter. One imagines the young Chast, walking the streets of 1960s Brooklyn, pondering the bizarre ways our systems of commerce produce meaningless junk. In a 1990 New Yorker cover, Chast depicts an archaeological chart of the supposed fourteen layers of detritus existing under New York City. Entire layers are devoted to “Lost Cat Toys” — mangy-looking mice, birds, felt balls — to “Mail That Never Got Through,” and to “Bell-bottoms, platform shoes, & peace medallions.” (Remember, this was 1990, not long after the 1970s.) The ninth layer is “Misplaced Important Papers,” including a will, tickets, receipts, an invitation, a new computer’s instructions, and “several bankbooks.”
These lost bankbooks are revealed, in Can’t We Talk, as crucial, psychologically freighted items in the actual Chast household. After Elizabeth is hospitalized following a fall from a stepladder — she was trying to locate an unneeded document she believed was hidden somewhere deep in what the family called the Crazy Closet — the increasingly senile and forgetful George temporarily moves in with his daughter’s family in Connecticut. “The nonstop chatter was annoying, but what really drove me over the edge was his paranoia about THE BANKBOOKS.” These “were a collection of uncanceled bankbooks dating back to at least the 1960s,” “many of them . . . from banks that didn’t even exist anymore.” George becomes frantic with worry that they will be stolen. He becomes so irrepressible in his obsession that Chast makes a sign reading “No Bankbook Talk” that she holds up whenever he broaches the topic. The bankbook obsession exemplifies a wider range of neurotic behavior by George and Elizabeth, who have responded to personal and family traumas with obsessive rigidity, unchanging routine, and semi-pathological hoarding.
Halfway through the narrative, Chast has successfully pried her ailing parents from their apartment, leaving her to begin “the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of going through my parents’ possessions: almost fifty years’ worth, crammed into four rooms.” She is disappointed but not surprised to find that “there was no buried treasure . . . It was pretty much dusty old junk,” the majority of which she ends up leaving for the building’s super to sell or throw out. “But it was our junk, and the thought of never seeing any of it was troubling. So I took some photos.” Here, Chast offers ten pages of actual photographs, lightly annotated: “Museum of old Schick shavers” (one of them bound up in duct tape); “So-o-o-o-o many pencils!!!!!”; “Why was there a drawer of jar lids?”; “My old bed. Also, the filing cabinet — the bankbooks were in the back of the top drawer!!!”
Chast’s previous work had accumulated motifs of junk, mysterious objects, and quasi-ethnographic investigations into the habits of “natives” who usually seemed to be versions of the Chasts themselves and their neighbors, evoking a cargo cult mythology of lost Brooklyn, a strange society organized around and knowable by its obsolete stuff. The most perfect example is a one-page comic called “The Lost Tribe,” in which a bearded explorer in a pith helmet, obviously Roz herself, discovers “a lost tribe . . . clearly human but untouched by modern civilization . . . We communicate as best we can.” This tribe consists of Roz’s parents in their Brooklyn apartment — drawn indistinguishably from their representation in the memoir, getting by with their “primitive tools” (manual can opener, non-cable TV, rotary phone). In another cartoon about the “Tournament of Neuroses Parade,” we see a middle-aged man seated between a formidable-looking older couple: “The ‘I Never Really Broke Away from My Parents’ Float.” Chast did eventually break away. But her parents’ decline demanded a “Return to the Fold” (a chapter title), and eventually a series of decisions about what to do with them and their things. She must outwit the conspiracy of inanimate objects, and discover how to care for her parents without taking on their neuroses and, almost as threatening, their accumulated stuff.
Can’t We Talk offers a new interpretive frame for many of her classic comics from the past several decades. For example, a small black and white comic that seems to be from the late 1980s considers “Why One’s Parents Got Married.” Options include “An alien civilization threatened to blow up the planet unless the two were wed” (featuring an angry-looking robot muttering imprecations) and “They were, in fact, for a brief time, the only man and woman on Earth, except for a nearby justice of the peace.” Chast seems torn between a recognition that her parents were so perfect for one another that they could barely function when separated, and a feeling that George and Elizabeth are so different from her as to seem members of some exotic race with whom she can only “communicate as best [she] can,” and whose marriage will always remain opaque.
Or consider a page of “Healing Truths Mother’s Day Cards.” One reads: “To a Dear Person on Mother’s Day. You did the best with the skills you had. / Considering everything, you weren’t so bad. / I’ll try not to repeat your mistakes.” With no self-pity, Chast gradually reveals in the memoir that she was left as a child in the care of “maids” (actually European exchange students) who sometimes hit her and locked her in the closet, leaving her with lifelong claustrophobia; that she was, for years, not permitted to eat lunch with the other children at school, but was humiliatingly required to be walked home by one of these “maids” to eat there alone; that her mother terrified her and her father with her rages, and at least once, when she’d gotten lost in a department store at around age four, hit her in a fury.
Chast vows to be a different kind of mother to her own children, and in the final pages of the book, she writes, “I’m still working things out with my mother. Sometimes, I want to go back in time and warn her, ‘Don’t do that! If you’re mean to her (me) again, you’ll lose her trust forever! It’s not worth it!!!’ Obviously, I can’t.” Can’t We Talk ends movingly with a series of delicate pen and ink sketches Chast made of her mother in the hours just following her death in August 2009, and finally, an Epilogue in which she depicts the temporary spot she has made for her parents’ ashes in her own reasonably well-ordered clothes closet. “Maybe when I completely give up this desire to make it right with my mother, I’ll know what to do with their cremains. Or maybe not.”