Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

By Roz Chast

New York: Bloomsbury, 2014, 234 pp., $28.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz,

When I told my middle-aged friends—and most of my friends are middle-aged—that I was reviewing Roz Chast’s memoir about her aging parents, they invariably replied, “Didn’t I see something about that in the New Yorker?” Indeed, they did. Chast’s twelve-page comic spread about her parents’ decline appeared in the print and online versions of the magazine in March 2014, to widespread conversation and 22,000 Facebook shares (that it garnered fewer than 1,000 tweets tells you something about the demographics of social media and Roz Chast fans).

The New Yorker piece begins with Chast’s family’s shared complicity in avoiding talk of the future, then moves rapidly through her parents’ difficult childhoods; their hoarding tendencies, trust issues, and increasing inability to care for themselves; the euphemistic absurdity and painful necessity of moving them into assisted living, or “The Place,” as Chast labels it; her father’s surrender to death; her mother’s persistent refusal to die; and her parents’ cremains, which she still keeps in her clothes closet. The piece is trademark Chast, with its radiating lines, googly eyes, flop sweat, acerbic one-liners— “Where, in the five stages of death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH!?!?” Chast’s character asks, after her mother’s unexpected recovery—and tragicomic captions such as “The Depressing Aisle”—the label on the drawing of a drugstore that stocks everything you need for oldest old age, including “Bed-bath, for when you’re done with baths”; “Liqui-food, for when you’re done with food”; and “Rash-a-way, jumbo economy size.”

The piece seemed fully formed, another self-contained episode in Chast’s decades-long chronicle of life in these times. But it turned out there was more: an entire book, of which the >New Yorker had published just a handful of pages. Excited fans clamored and, happily for them if unhappily for their parents, the book more than meets their desire to see their own stories brilliantly reflected, refracted, and clarified with Chast’s unique brand of anxious acuity.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? explores an experience that is at once universal (the decline of aging parents); demographically specific (the decline of aging parents of relatively well-off, educated baby boomers); demographically and culturally specific (the decline of aging parents of relatively well-off, educated, Jewish baby boomers from Brooklyn); and specifically personal (the painful decline of the aging George Chast, an anxiety-ridden former high school French and Spanish teacher, and his wife Elizabeth, a domineering former elementary school assistant principal, as seen through the eyes of their befuddled yet sharply observant daughter Roz, who happens to be a famous contemporary American cartoonist). Few besides Chast could pull off such specific universalizing, and her cartoon format is ideally suited to her task, making visually explicit the fact that she is talking about three particular people, even as their travails resonate widely.

A veritable cottage industry of books about caring for aging parents has accompanied the graying of the baby boom, and two of the most popular American graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), are about, among other things, difficult parents. So it can’t be said that Chast is breaking new ground. But just as Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions made it acceptable to talk about the messy, frustrating, sometimes hilarious complexity of parenting, so Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? takes the conversation about Depends, health-care proxies, and cleaning out decades of accumulated possessions to a new level of despair, humor, and good old-fashioned ambivalence. Indeed, its rapturous reception suggests that the aging-parent memoir may well be the new parenting memoir.

Chast narrates her version in a purposeful hodgepodge of single images, multipanel strips, handwritten text, photographs, typed poems, a six-line play, and a parody of the children’s magazine.

The book begins with this hodgepodge in miniature: a dedication to Chast’s parents; a table of contents, accompanied by a vertical four-panel commentary that introduces her nervous sweating father and imperious cheapskate mother; and a black-and-white photograph of a blond-banged Chast, perhaps five years old, holding a book and sitting between her bespectacled, respectably dressed parents. Chast looks skeptical, and her parents, who look like her grandparents, are beaming. Those three pages set up the entire book, which is as much the anatomy of a family as a soon-to-be-classic of parental decline. Indeed, if hodgepodge is Chast’s mode, it also mirrors the experience of family—again, all families, but in particular her own—in its accretion of different experiences and images into an often-shaky, but in this case at least, surprisingly durable whole.

Chast depicts her father as the embodiment of “chronic anxiety”—a picky eater, easily paralyzed by the minutiae of everyday life. Yet he is also “smart,” “kind and sensitive,” and something of a salvation to his daughter: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter,” Chast muses. Her mother, in contrast, was “critical and uncompromising” and “perfectionist”—the detonator of “blasts from Chast,” whenever she was displeased, which was often.

One side of the family dynamic is captured in an image of Chast’s mother’s giant head, half a page high, with spinning eyes and a black hole of a mouth, shouting “I’M GOING TO BLOW MY TOP!!!” in a speech balloon that hovers over tiny cowering figures of Chast and her father. But the other side of the family dynamic is the deep, admittedly “codependent,” connection between Chast’s parents, who “referred to each other, without any irony, as ‘soul mates,’” she writes. This attachment turned Chast, born sixteen years after their wedding, into an outsider. Although she spent much of her adult life avoiding her parents and Brooklyn, a drawing of a sullen blond-banged adult Chast sitting on the couch between her frowning elderly parents, with the words “YOU ARE HERE / SUCK IT UP” in a text box above her head, echoes the photograph that opens the book, in the context of her parents’ changing circumstances.

One of Chast’s observations is that there is aging—and then there is Aging, or extreme aging.  As her parents reach ninety, “I could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV-commercial old age—and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture. SOMETHING WAS COMING DOWN THE PIKE.” Written in yellow block letters outlined in black, that last sentence functions like hazard tape, telling readers that we really don’t want to go there.  But Chast and her parents, like many of us, have no choice.

The dramatic decline begins with a fall, as it frequently does—a scene depicted in a drawing of her anxious father begging her mother not to climb a ladder, her stern mother climbing, and the arm-flapping mishap itself. After weeks in bed at home, with Chast and her father endlessly uncertain of what to do, her mother ends up in the hospital. After a 22-hour wait in the emergency room, Chast brings her father home with her and discovers that he doesn’t remember where his wife is. “I had had that my father was so far gone,” she writes. “When he was living with my take-charge mother in familiar, never-changing surroundings, his symptoms of senility had seemed pretty low key.” Any reader who has reached the point where dementia suddenly reveals itself as worse than anyone thought will nod vigorously—like a Roz Chast character.

What follows is the tale told in the New Yorker writ large over several years: the frustrating and comical absurdity of her father’s dementia-generated repetitions and obsessions, the tortuous return home, a disastrous visit to one nursing home, the eventual settling in at another. Chast worries about money, confronts the hidden details of aging and her own uncertainties, and discovers that she is, well, pretty much who she knew she was all along: on the one hand, she writes, “I worried about them. (Print can’t possibly capture the variety of Chast’s lettering.) Even—or perhaps especially—as Chast becomes their caretaker, her parents continue to drive her crazy in exactly the ways they always have.

It would be easy to hurl a superficial class and race critique at: this is what happens when white people with resources get old. Even though Chast worries incessantly about money, there is always enough, and her mother is cared for, at the very end of her life, by that stock character of popular culture and feminist critique, the nurturing woman-of-color caregiver, who takes on her role not just by happenstance, but because of the dominant cultural narratives and socioeconomic realities of US history. Except, Chast is completely on to this. “And once again,” she writes, “one of society’s least-wanted jobs was being done by a minority woman. I felt guilty about this, too...but relieved...and jealous...and grateful.” In that sequence of adjectives, she lays out the compromised position of the woman who hands over her traditional caregiving responsibilities to another with full awareness of her complicity in the workings of privilege: “Guess I’ll go home now and DRAW?"

Chast’s parents die as they lived. After a fall of his own, her father essentially gives up. On his last day, Chast “tried to telepath to him how much I loved him, and that I knew how much he loved me, and that we were ‘good,’ and that it was o.k. to let go.” He dies later that afternoon, while she is at lunch with a friend, and her mother is in the bathroom. Her mother hangs on, moving in and out of hospice, taking repeated “turns for the worse” that then turn for the better—that tuna sandwich—and never granting Chast the reconciliation she forces herself to seek.

When Chast’s mother finally dies, Chast is again herself: “I drew her. I didn’t know what else to do.” The penultimate section of the book is a dozen drawings of her mother during the last several weeks of her life, including right after her death. These images are not hodgepodge, not cartoons, not humor, not exaggeration, just line drawings of her mother at rest: straight-up, angst-free memento mori that get to the universal heart of this story. Whether or not we are artists, whether or not we are from Brooklyn, whether or not we ultimately cherish the love of our parents (like Chast and her father) or continue to struggle with their difficulty (like Chast and her mother), our parents die. If we are lucky, we will live to tell the tale, as Chast does so powerfully, for so many of us.

Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor. She writes regularly for the Boston Globe and Women’s Review of Books, and is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary (2011). She feels exceedingly fortunate in the good health of her parents and knocks wood every day.

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