Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Proof of Life on Earth by Roz Chast

I have a weakness for collections of single-panel cartoons, especially of The New Yorker school. (I used to have a couple of shelves of them, before the Event last year.) But it's quite true that a random old book of cartoons can sometimes be clearly part of a cultural time and place that is now well past -- I complained about something similar when I read Victoria Geng's New Yorker humor collection Love Trouble Is My Business a few years back; that it was entirely of its very specific, very hermetic time and place and didn't make much sense (or humor) outside of that.

Roz Chast's 1991 cartoon collection, Proof of Life on Earth, isn't quite that removed -- most of the cartoons are about perennial topics, like cross-country knitting, the size of the defense budget, quotations, gardening, wall-to-wall carpet, Brooklyn, fiestaware, and lots and lots of anxieties. (Chast has an impressive collection of anxieties; her most recent book was all about them.) But there are some more dated references, to Martha Stewart, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and other quintessentially '80s stuff, to remind the reader, every so often, this this book of cartoons is twenty years old.

Still, Chast has been remarkably consistent, in her style (loose but careful, like the sketchbook of a forgotten '50s ad woman), in her material (usually domestic, with a deeply weird twist), and in her deadpan tone, which can make the reader wonder, once in a while, if it's all really supposed to be funny. And this book is prime Chast, right in the middle of her long cartooning career -- though Chast is best in repeated small doses; like many cartoonists, her nudges tend to hit in the same place each time, so you don't want to read too many of them at once, or else you'll be bruised.

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