Roz Chast is grasping for a word, her hands raised as if to catch it between her palms, as she tries to describe what it felt like to have finished her new book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, May). “You know, when it’s done and you can’t make any changes—this looks terrible, oh that margin, oh I forgot something... Torschlusspanik! That’s it! It’s German. It means the door is about to close, and you’re anxious that you can’t get back in.” But, in truth, Chast is content, really, with the finished product. “I told the story I wanted to tell,” she says.
Chast grew up in a small apartment in Brooklyn and was an only child, which was a mixed blessing: she had the undivided attention of her parents, George and Elizabeth, but also had to endure her demanding mother, whose opinionated rants overwhelmed her timid father.
Years later, memories of life in that Brooklyn apartment would become the fodder for many of Chast’s hilarious, quirky cartoons. Chast, who is now 59, sold her first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1978; since then, over a thousand of her cartoons have appeared in the magazine. “It’s a medium that combines all my favorite things: drawing, writing, and humor,” Chast explains. “Plus, it’s very malleable. You can tell multipage stories, or do a one-panel gag. You can make up fake ads, or recipes, or write silly poems—anything, as long as it’s funny.”
Chast’s uncanny observations of human nature and distinctive artistic style make her cartoons instantly recognizable. “I think of my drawing style like handwriting: it’s a mix of whatever handwriting you’re born with, plus bits and pieces you’ve pilfered from other people around you,” she says. “And yeah, I love detail, like drawing what’s on top of someone’s coffee table. Maybe there’s a little bowl of butterscotch candies on it, next to the four TV remotes.” Her cartoons can also take the forms of pie charts, magazines, or greeting cards. Chast is the performance artist of American cartoonists.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is notable because it’s her first memoir and is therefore the most personal and revealing of all her work. The story, told primarily through cartoons, is a chronicle of Chast’s upbringing and her complex relationship with her parents, as they aged and became dependent on her, eventually dying two years apart, at the ages of 95 and 97.
The book was a challenge for Chast, and not only because of its painful documentation of her parents’ mental and physical deterioration. “The hardest part was that I had all this material, and didn’t know how to organize it,” says Chast. “I’d never written anything like this before. Is it going to be all cartoons? Will it just have text? How do I do drawings of what happened to my parents toward the end?”
“Finally, I talked to my shrink about it,” Chast says frankly. “He’s great, with a very good practical sense, and he said, ‘How about breaking it up into chapters?’ Gee! What’s that word? Chapters? I’d never put chapters together before. It was like Make a Book 101.”
At first, Chast imagined the memoir as a series of four-panel cartoons. “But I knew it couldn’t be that. I guess it falls under the umbrella of graphic memoir, but there are pages that are all text, there are photographs, my mother’s typewritten poems, and drawings of my mother that I did in her room right after she died.”
Can’t We Talk achieves the perfect balance of gravitas and humor. The reader chokes back tears on one page and then bursts out laughing on the next.
Before her parents began their decline, Chast frequently tried to coax them into discussing difficult subjects, such as their finances, assisted living facilities, and what Chast should do with their remains when they die. What, if any, kind of funeral did they want? Inevitably, one of Chast’s parents would groan and ask, “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” They unwittingly gave their daughter’s memoir its title. “If we even approached the outer circle of ‘the Big D,’ my father would just change the subject,” she says.
Chast lives in Connecticut with her husband, Bill Franzen, and has two children. When, after a series of accidents, illnesses, and the onset of her father’s dementia, she finally moved her parents into a residential facility, they left behind their cluttered apartment, taking only a few personal belongings. “The apartment was almost like that TV show about hoarders,” she notes. “Toilet paper rolls and paper towels covered my old bed. In one corner, there were empty tin cans and amber pill bottles. My father had drawers of old newspapers and stacks of Newsweek magazines.”
Many of the details in Can’t We Talk aren’t so benign. Chast’s memoir doesn’t shy away from the realities of old age, including her mother’s loss of bowel control and the steep healthcare costs. “My parents scrimped and saved all their lives, to the point where my mother used a disgusting old oven mitt that was stained and partly patched together with a skirt I made in seventh grade,” Chast says. “And then their money went so fast—from a patched oven mitt to $14,000 a month in healthcare. It’s not like they had a lot of money [when they were young]: one was an assistant principal, the other a teacher, so I was grateful they had saved up for this. But I was terrified—what if the money ran out?”
Despite her grief over their loss, Chast reflects on her parents’ story with humor. George’s body was cremated when he died in 2007. “My mother never spoke about their wishes at any length, but when my father was cremated, she started to worry. She said, ‘Do you think Daddy felt anything?’ Are we four years old here, or what? Daddy was gone!”
Before her parents died, Chast was generally “an avoider” when it came to the issue of death. Writing the memoir helped her to deal with her feelings. “One way of paying tribute to my parents was ‘bearing witness’ as the Quakers do—writing down everything that was happening, instead of turning my back on it and pretending that it was all great.”
Can’t We Talk is Chast’s memorial to her parents. “I hope it comes across that my feelings for them were complex, but that I do think of them as amazing people. I wanted a different kind of relationship with my mother, but it was too late for that. I wrote the book to help those going through this, and to make them feel they’re not alone. You do get through it.”