Monday, July 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #202: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

A memoir about the death of one's parents is supposed to be wrenching, deeply sad, and entirely laudatory about the dead. Good thing no one ever told Roz Chast that.

Chast had an odd family to begin with: she was the only child of an inseparable -- and deeply New York, in the cliched neurotic, overbearing, and co-dependent ways -- couple who were in their early forties, and already sixteen years into their marriage, when she was born. She doesn't precisely say here that she was an afterthought or a third wheel, but I imagine she must have felt that way many times. And, as it usually happens, Chast herself is a bit odd -- at least that's how she presents herself, focused on minutia and the kind of ex-New Yorker who barely learned how to drive (and still doesn't do it well).

The title sets the tone: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? It's spoken by Chast's parents to her, at one of the rare times she actually tried to lead them into a discussion of "that stuff" -- what she should do if they get sick or die. The elder Chasts ignored that discussion as long as possible, and they did better than most: Elizabeth Chast's first serious fall -- it's a cliche, but it's true: old people are very often fine until that one fall at the wrong time or place -- was in late 2005, when she was already 93.

Something More Pleasant begins in 2001, with Roz Chast's first inklings that her parents were getting too old to take care of themselves and their apartment. And, as she shows was usual, her concerns were steamrollered by her mother, who had never lost an argument (or, apparently, a discussion or even simple conversation) with her daughter in her life and wasn't about to start in her nineties. Then things start getting bad with that fall at the end of 2005, and the bulk of the book covers the period when both parents -- they were essentially the same age, born ten days apart in 1912 -- began seriously declining and Roz Chast had to start having all of those unpleasant talks and then to start taking on more and more responsibility.

(I think anyone will find Something More Pleasant touching and bittersweet and thoughtfully true and funny in unexpected and serendipitous ways, but I may have reacted to it more strongly because there was one of those falls in my own family this year. My father-in-law and mother-in-law both had major medical problems within two days of each other -- it's horrible but true: health problems for old people build up quietly for a while and then burst out all at once at the worst possible time -- and only one of them made it through. It's not my story to tell, though, so I'll leave it at that.)

All of this, of course, is told the Roz Chast way: sometimes in comics panels, sometimes with actual photographs with captions (as when she had to clear out the apartment her parents had lived in since 1959), sometimes with pages mostly made up of Chast's hand-drawn lettering with a few illustrations. It's a cartoon memoir, to stand alongside Stitches and Fun Home and Marbles, and it's at least as good as any of those. Chast has been turning moments and thoughts into single, laser-like cartoons for decades now, it's fascinating to see her turn that same ability to a much larger concern and a bigger relationship: the same precision and emotional truth are there, but embedded in a much deeper and larger context.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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