Roz Chast feels — and draws — our pain. Our neurotic worries and genuine fears, our mundane and existential anxieties, our daydreams, nightmares, insecurities and guilty regrets. Or, rather, she does such a funny, fluent job in her New Yorker cartoons of conveying the things that keep her up at night that many readers are convinced that she is somehow mapping their own inner lives.
It hasn't been hard to discern the autobiographical impulse in Chast's work. Though her earliest cartoons tended to be more conceptual, many of the later ones in her "selected, collected, & health-inspected" anthology Theories of Everything (2006) are clearly informed by her experiences as a daughter, wife and mother.
In her latest book, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast tackles the subject of her parents, writing with a new depth and amplitude of emotion. Her account of growing up with them in New York City as an only child and her efforts, decades later, to help them navigate the jagged shoals of old age and ill health, is by turns grim and absurd, deeply poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.
Her fondness for the exclamatory is cranked up several notches here, and her familiar, scribbly people go from looking merely frazzled and put-upon to looking like the shrieking figure in Munch's The Scream — panicked and terrified as they see the abyss of loss and mortality looming just up the road.
With Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast reminds us how deftly the graphic novel can capture ordinary crises in ordinary American lives, how a mixture of cartoons and photographs and text can create a family portrait with all the intimacy and emotional power of a conventional prose memoir.
Chast's descriptions of her parents are so sharply detailed that we instantly feel we've known them for decades: her bossy, impossibly stubborn mother, Elizabeth, and her gentle, worrywart father, George, who were in the same fifth-grade class, and who, "aside from WWII, work, illness, and going to the bathroom," did "everything together."
For decades, George and Elizabeth continued to live in Brooklyn in the same apartment where Chast grew up. The "to-do" list of her unhappy childhood and adolescence, she recalls, included exhortations like "Avoid contact with other children" (because they might have germs), "Look up symptom in Merck Manual" and "Do not die." After marrying and moving to Connecticut, Chast says she spent the 1990s avoiding Brooklyn. She began to realise, however, that her parents "were slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age" and moving into "the part of old age that was scarier" and harder to talk about.