In Cartoonist Roz Chast’s Memoir of Aging Parents, Laughing is Coping

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is an intense, humorous, painful exercise in catharsis. Read More

By / May 14, 2014

Death, then deluge: I couldn’t stop thinking about this while reading cartoonist Roz Chast‘s new memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? An intense, humorous, and frequently painful exercise in catharsis, it closely documents the decline and eventual deaths of Chast’s elderly parents—and it’s not pretty. As any dutiful daughter knows, you are definitely not allowed to write about your parents until they are no longer of this world. And if you have siblings, probably not even then. Chast, however, is an only child, and she here she presents a loving but unsparing examination of her parents, and herself.

The story is told through a combination of comics, handwritten pages, photos, and sketches. Chast’s style is harried, and drawings rarely seem drafted, perfectly channeling both the anxiety of living the events described, and the urgency of wanting to record all of it. The photos show up unexpectedly, and to great effect. Pages describing her hoarding parents’ apartment are followed by stark images of rooms filled with piles of browning and greying stuff, the decrepitude highlighted by the flash-photograph.

Visually, comics can get you to a place that feels, somehow, closer to the truth. People who draw their experiences are attempting to document everything as precisely as possible: this is what was said; this is what everyone was wearing; this is what the weather was like on that day. Chast is deeply observant, and a natural storyteller, and the flood of emotion and memory has a remarkable flow. Several comics (and some truly amazing photos of a young, grumpy, cat-eye bespectacled Chast), serve as flashbacks to her childhood, and these stories aren’t merely anecdotal. With the author now caring for her parents, every incident mentioned takes on a new layer of meaning.

Chast has made her name writing jokes on the themes of worry and disappointment, so it’s no surprise that even the funny parts are quite dark. Bizarre Alzheimer’s moments make for amusing stories, as do strange and horrifying incidents at the aged care facility her parents move to. When her mother insists that her (long-deceased) mother-in-law is trying to poison her, or another resident falls off her chair during mealtime, nobody is dismayed. Laughing is coping, because what else can you do? It’s an informative insight into the origin of Chast’s style, and her general philosophy.

Examined more than anything is the author’s relationship with her mother, a stubborn and often unfriendly woman whose New York home ran on fear–of the outside world, money, death, and disease. Mrs. Chast is equally stubborn in dying; she exists suspended between life and death for an extended period of time, and here, more than anywhere else, the trauma of Chast’s unhappy childhood revisits her. She seeks closure and answers, but rarely looks to her mother for comfort; alas, she has never been its source. The painful resolve in wanting to be a better mother than her own is evident here. She worked hard to leave and change, but here she is, back where it all started. These are the things you cannot escape, and this is what they look like.

Waiting with her newly-deceased mother, Chast writes “I didn’t know what do, so I drew her.” A sketch follows. Pages of similar sketches follow; simple pen drawings of her mother’s comatose, slack-jawed face, drawn in the days leading up to her passing. These are not comics. They are dated drawings documenting precisely what the author was looking at: a dying, elderly woman. Death, as usual, demands to be looked at in the eye. Chast tells us that her parents’ “cremains” live in her closet. They are together, they are quiet, and finally, she can contain them. So: death, then deluge, but then maybe peace.

Esther C. Werdiger writes, makes comics, illustrates, podcasts, and lives in New York. You can read her “League of Ordinary Ladies” series here.