A classic memoir

Roz Chast’s illustrated diary has a ring of honesty and truth, and universality.

Roz Chast’s illustrated diary (photo credit: ROZ CHAST)
Roz Chast’s illustrated diary
(photo credit: ROZ CHAST)
I STUBBORNLY read neither comic books nor, to employ a term I don’t much like, “graphic novels.” Even more crankily, I rarely read those exercises in self-aggrandizement called memoirs. But then there’s Roz Chast.
A notable and highly distinctive cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine since 1978, Chast, 60, has published nearly a dozen cartoon collections for adults and illustrated books for children. I’d looked at none of these. Then came “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” This is Chast’s illustrated diary detailing how this Brooklyn- born Jewish girl dealt with her aging and dying parents. Who could resist such a topic? In fact, the whole book – words, drawings, documents, and photographs – is irresistible. So much so, that it was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2014.
As characters in her book (and what characters!), Chast’s parents are highly individualized, but the daughter’s ordeal in seeing them through their final years and days will resonate with countless readers. We see a retired couple (George was a public school teacher, Elizabeth an assistant principal) crumble into old age, ill health and mental instability.
Like so many parents these days, God bless ‘em, they hang on into their 90s. Like so many adult children, Roz suffers along with them – frustrated by their refusal to accept change, by their increasing eccentricity, by the financial demands their care requires (as much as $14,000 a month). The daughter is further battered by converging feelings of duty, guilt, anger, remorse and more. Sounds Jewish? “I’m Jewish,” snaps Mama Chast. “Daddy is Jewish. You’re Jewish. End of story.”
George Chast was a World War II veteran and bright enough to master and teach foreign languages, but as depicted by his daughter he was also effete, physically inept, insecure and completely under the thumb of his wife. Elizabeth was domineering, opinionated, maddeningly stubborn and, in her own description, “built like a peasant.” She lived to 97, two years longer than her husband. Roz, an only child, doted on her father, and vice versa. Her feelings toward her mother were more complicated.
“I’m your mother,” the daughter recalls being informed, “not your friend.” Later Roz would wonder: Why couldn’t she be both? Married for 67 years, George and Elizabeth Chast were uncommonly close. They were born to Russian immigrant parents just 10 days apart and just two blocks from each other in East Harlem. They met in the fifth grade and never dated anyone else.
“Aside from WWII, work, illness, and going to the bathroom,” Chast observes, “they did everything together.”
These self-declared “soul mates” were also highly neurotic – he fearful of everything and unable to operate a toaster, she truculent and parsimonious, germ-phobic and full of all the prejudices and urban mythologies of the day. The couple lived in the same apartment for 48 years and apparently never threw anything away. Dealing with the apartment after moving her parents to a retirement home was one of Chast’s most stressful tasks. (All those ancient bankbooks from financial institutions that had long ago gone under.) Things, however, didn’t get much better after her parents were resettled. There was, for example, the matter of Elizabeth’s “recollections.” “Once,” she tells her daughter, “I was on a launch… and a woman who was naked down to her pupik got stabbed in the heart by a flying fish!!! A terrible way to die.” Roz gently suggests that her mother dreamed this. “No,” the old woman insists. “I was right there.”
Chast relates every step of her parents’ decline – medical, bureaucratic, sociological, psychological, financial – in excruciating detail. Much of this will be all too familiar to folks who have gone through the same with their parents. So who would want to read such a downer of a book? The funny thing is Chast makes so much of it funny – both in reporting what she and her parents say and do and in how she illustrates everything, right down to the pinwheel eyes of anger and disbelief, the electric-socket shock of hair standing on end, and the hallucinatory images (the Wheel of Doom, pictures of the afterlife). If Chast’s drawings of her parents are uncompromising and unflattering, she is no less sparing of herself (invariably homely, frazzled, furious, bewildered, etc.).
But above all, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” has a ring of honesty and truth and universality customarily absent in personal memoirs. Call it a comic strip, call it a graphic novel, call it a sketchbook, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is a signal achievement and has classic written all over it.