Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What I Hate from A to Z by Roz Chast

This is an odd little item: if there were picture books for adults (you know, "lap books," or what else you might call them -- books for kids with a few words on each page and big pictures), this would be one. And, come to think of it, there are books like that, every so often -- just not very many, and they don't form any coherent genre. (Go the F**k to Sleep, for example, was a big hit last year, and that explains a lot of the problems with the form -- these are almost always books very much like books for kids, but twisted in a specific way to make them unsuitable for those kids and thus adult.

What I Hate: From A to Z is an alphabet book -- another very common kid of picture book, as Go the F**k was a sleepy-time book -- with, of course, very adult concerns and fears, written and illustrated by the renowned New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. There's a short prose introduction -- set in type, unlike the body of the book, which has Chast's hand-lettering for both the cartoons and the page of short explanation facing each one -- to talk about an exercise she uses to fall asleep by thinking of an example for each letter of the alphabet of something. (Chast suggests rock bands, birds, fruits and vegetables, diseases, movie titles, and similar prosaic categories.) Chast is also -- or at least presents herself as, in best New Yorker-cartoonist fashion -- deeply neurotic, and worried about most of the things in the world.

So this book catalogs one anxiety for each letter of the alphabet, from Alien Abduction to Z (which doesn't really have a specific anxiety -- Chast riffs on endings instead), with crowd-pleasers like Rabies, Heights, Premature Burial, and Kites along the way. It's high on free-floating anxiety, as of course it would be, but doesn't have the punch of a book of individual cartoons, since each page is designed to illustrate a concept rather than to be a funny cartoon on its own. It's not the best example of Chast's work -- if you like New Yorker-style cartoons, she is wonderful, but this sees her specific viewpoint channeled into a particular schema rather than allowed to make jokes wherever it can.

It's amusing, and pretty funny, but it's really more of a gag gift, or possibly for Chast's most devoted fans. And the title is slightly inaccurate -- it's things that make her afraid, or uneasy, or anxious, rather than things she hates. (Hate is such a strong emotion for a New Yorker-style cartoonist; they typically feel things that are more inwardly-directed.)

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