Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

By Roz Chast

(Bloomsbury, $28, 228 pages)

Who is this author?

Roz Chast was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived in Ridgefield with her family for many years. More than 1,000 of her inimitably quirky cartoons have run in The New Yorker since 1978 – you could call them quintessentially NewYorkerish —  and others have appeared in Scientific American, Harvard Business Review, Redbook, Mother Jones, and many other magazines. She also has written or illustrated more than a dozen books. You can get a fine overview of her work in Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006.

What is this book about?

Promise you won’t stop reading if I tell you.

This  #1 New York Times Bestseller, finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction and  winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, is a graphic novel about Chast’s very difficult relationship with her very, very difficult parents and how she tried to care for them as they moved into an even more difficult stage of life: declining and demented in their 90s. That’s the grim reality.

What makes this illustrated memoir so, well, memorable, is the way Chast manages to inject humor into this achingly sad and often heartbreaking story. Her parents, teacher George and vice-principal Elizabeth, met in fifth grade, never dated others and were so preternaturally close a couple that Roz, an only child, was made to feel like an unwelcome intruder. The Chasts were full of anxiety and transmitted it to their daughter: you can see it in the squiggly-wiggly way she draws. Her father, even when healthy, was a weakling; her mother an overbearing, often nasty shrew. Still, they were her family, and Chast dID her best to cope with their oddities and get them the care they desperately needed, but did not want. It was an epic struggle. To paraphrase Shakespeare: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To be an un-thanked child.”

Why you’ll like it:

If you have coped with caring for a declining elderly parent, or wonder how well you will do if that daunting job falls to you, this book will resonate with you. Chast has a brilliant understanding of the combustible mixture of love and frustration that suffuses such situations. As a cartoonist, she has always had a firm grasp on the slipperiness of the absurd; this talent serves her well as, after years of estrangement, she attempts the nearly impossible task of gaining her parents’ trust and affection, so long missing from her life. This is a brave, wrenchingly honest and yet often laugh-out-loud funny book whose images and message will stay with you for a very long time. Read it and laugh, and then weep, and then laugh again, and then make your adult children read it too.

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says:  “A revelatory and occasionally hilarious memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist on helping her parents through their old age. Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she’s done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life as the only child of parents who had never even dated anyone else and whose deep bond left little room for this intruder in their midst. Yet, “the reality was that at 95, their minds and bodies were falling apart,” and these two people who had only relied on each other were forced to rely on a host of caretakers, their daughter in particular, and to move from the Brooklyn apartment that had been home for half a century into a series of facilities that provided fewer and fewer amenities at escalating expense. Chast rarely lapses into sentimentality and can often be quite funny, as she depicts mortality as “The Moving Sidewalk of Life” (“Caution: Drop-Off Ahead”) or deals with dread and anxiety on the “Wheel of DOOM, surrounded by the ‘cautionary’ tales of my childhood.” The older her parents get, the more their health declines and the more expensive the care they require, the bleaker the story becomes—until, toward the end, a series of 12 largely wordless drawings of her mother’s final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does. A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work.

In The New York Times Book Review, Alex Witchel writes: “This is a beautiful book, deeply felt, both scorchingly honest about what it feels like to love and care for a mother who has never loved you back, at least never the way you had wanted, and achingly wistful about a gentle father who could never break free of his domineering wife and ride to his daughter’s rescue. It veers between being laugh-out-loud funny and so devastating I had to take periodic timeouts. Cartoons, as it happens, are tailor-made for the absurdities of old age, illness and dementia, the odd dramas and grinding repetition expertly illustrated by copious exclamation points, capital letters and antic drawings. They also limit the opportunity for navel gazing and self-pity, trapping you in the surreal moments themselves.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “Something more pleasant” than the certainty of old age and death is what Chast’s parents would prefer to talk about, in this poignant and funny text-and-cartoon memoir of their final years. . . . Chast  . . . describes how her parents, George and Elizabeth, try her patience as she agonizes over their past and future. She brings her parents and herself to life in the form of her characteristic scratchy-lined, emotionally expressive characters, making the story both more personal and universal. Despite the subject matter, the book is frequently hilarious, highlighting the stubbornness and eccentricities (and often sheer lunacy) of the author’s parents. It’s a homage that provides cathartic “you are not alone” support to those caring for aging parents. . . . this is a cartoon memoir to laugh and cry, and heal, with—Roz Chast’s masterpiece.

“Chast’s scratchy art turns out perfectly suited to capturing the surreal realities of the death process. In quirky color cartoons, handwritten text, photos, and her mother’s poems, she documents the unpleasant yet sometimes hilarious cycle of human doom. She’s especially dead-on with the unpredictable mental states of both the dying and their caregivers: placidity, denial, terror, lunacy, resignation, vindictiveness, and rage. . . Chast so skillfully exposes herself and her family on the page as to give readers both insight and entertainment on a topic nearly everyone avoids. As with her New Yorker cartoons, Chast’s memoir serves up existential dilemmas along with chuckles and can help serve as a tutorial for the inevitable,” says Library Journal in a starred review.

“Roz Chast squeezes more existential pain out of baffled people in cheap clothing sitting around on living-room sofas with antimacassar doilies in crummy apartments than Dostoevsky got out of all of Russia’s dark despair. This is a great book in the annals of human suffering, cleverly disguised as fun,” says fellow New Yorker contributor Bruce McCall.

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a graphic memoir — in at least two senses. It joins Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, William Trevor’s The Old Boys, and Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up in the competition for the funniest book about old age I’ve ever read. It is also heartbreaking. In its pages, the elements of Chast’s most inspired comic work, well known particularly to readers of The New Yorker — impending calamity and aloneness — are no longer mere phantoms but are, instead, intractable, implacable reality. She, an only child, depicts in words, drawings, and ineffable mood her un-self-assured efforts to avert utter disaster as her parents descend into “the part of old age that [is] scarier, harder to talk about, and not part of this culture.

“. . . Naturally, this book begins on a doily-accoutered couch, a Chastian fixture as much existential condition as piece of furniture. There we first meet George and Elizabeth Chast, both born in 1912 and now around ninety years old . . .

Elizabeth had been an assistant elementary school principal and George, a high school teacher.. . . As a couple, they are perfectly matched: George, passive, patient, gentle, and anxious, is a man who “chain-worried the way others might chain smoke. He never learned to drive, swim, ride a bicycle, or change a lightbulb.” Elizabeth is aggressive, intolerant, confident, and domineering. She writes poetry of sorts, is given to explosions of rage (“blasts from Chast”), and played the piano almost every evening during the author’s unlamented childhood while young Roz and her father “would cower in admiration on the couch.”

“ . . . The ancient hostility between Chast and her mother becomes more fraught after her father’s death: Roz longing for some sign that her mother had loved her — this mother, now a lunatic version of her old self-centered, chilly self.

“. . .  Throughout the book, Chast’s drawings express her powerful sense of aloneness. With only a couple of exceptions, it’s just Roz — her daughter appears briefly — faced, as she was as a child, with her parents’ united front: dysfunctional in the past, positively pathological now. Her style — droopy, alarmed, appalled — perfectly captures her overwhelming feeling of inadequacy in the face of this drawn-out emergency. They show, graphically, how events surround her, and how taking care of parents deep in their dotage is an all-encompassing task.

“. . . Still, one might think, without really thinking, that a cartoon book about one’s parents’ decline and death would be a breach of good taste: disrespectful and not nice. (Can’t we illustrate something more pleasant?) But no. The final chapters in both parents’ lives, and their daughter’s bit part in each, are extremely moving. Certainly, the drawings and text are very funny, but here more than anywhere else in Chast’s work, one feels her comedy to be a form of desperate doughtiness, an attempt to foil terror, ease pity, and expiate guilt.

When is it available?

This remarkable book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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