A cartoonist remembers waiting for the grim reaper

A cartoonist remembers waiting for the grim reaper

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 1 August, 2015
Roz Chast’s bittersweet memoir about her ageing parents’ final years is an instant classic, with its superbly crafted cartoons and its masterful juggling of humour and pathos, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2014)

Writer/Artist: Roz Chast

Bloomsbury (USA)

Price: Rs 299

None of our parents are getting any younger. It's also a universally acknowledged truth that the amount of patience you have with them parents is inversely proportional to their age. And yet, until Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? came along last year, you'd be hard pressed to name a book that addressed the topic of ageing parents and how one feels about their impending deaths.

Graphic memoirs have a long and illustrious line of eccentric elders: Art Spiegelman's father in Maus (a Holocaust survivor who nevertheless baulked at the idea of offering a lift to a black man), Marjane Satrapi's formidable old granny in Embroideries and Persepolis (every morning, she would dip her breasts in a basin of flowers in cold water) and Alison Bechdel's mother in Fun Home and Are You My Mother? spring to mind immediately. To these carefully etched out portraits we can now add the names of Elizabeth and George Chast, thanks to cartoonist Roz Chast's remarkable memoir. 

One of the most striking features of Chast’s art as well as her writing is the ability to imbue places with “signature” emotions. Her description of the flat where she grew up (where her parents still lived, when Chast was well into her 50s) begins with a mini-treatise on the meaning of the word “grime”. 

As Chast comments towards the beginning of the book, one reason for her parents' reluctance to talk about death was its constant presence in their families' lives. George's mother was the only girl among nine children, but all eight of her brothers were consumed by the Russian cholera epidemic. A few years after this, her father's throat was slit by bandits. Elizabeth's first child, a girl, died the day after she was born. But her skilful writing also develops the idea of the stoic's preserve of vitality: the curious idea that somehow, not talking about death had become a way to stave it off; especially for two people who had never dated anybody apart from each other. Chast writes: "They were a tight little unit. Maybe they believed that if they just held on to each other really tightly for eternity, nothing would ever change." The accompanying cartoon shows their parents speaking in platitudes: "Why rock the boat? Why roil the waters? Why rattle the cage?"

One of the most striking features of Chast's art as well as her writing is the ability to imbue places with "signature" emotions. Her description of the flat where she grew up (where her parents still lived, when Chast was well into her 50s) begins with a mini-treatise on the meaning of the word "grime" ("It's not ordinary dust, or dirt, or a greasy stovetop that hasn't been cleaned in a week or two"). The part of town where her parents lived wasn't the Brooklyn "of artists and hipsters"; it was "(...) deep Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have been left behind by everything and everyone. The Brooklyn of smelly hallways and neighbours having screaming fights and where no one went to Manhattan — "the city" — unless it was for their job at Drudgery Inc."

Elizabeth was every bit the fierce matriarch, as Chast's cartoons show us: the most common image of her that you'll come across has furious goggle eyes, sharp-edged cartoonish hair standing on end and a rage-filled speech balloon filled with irate words in bold. In comparison, George comes across as a meek, forgetful polyglot who loves language but worries about bankbooks a little too much. There are moments of rare tenderness here, like when Chast draws Elizabeth cleaning George's hair, or when George, in a bout of senile dementia, forgets that Elizabeth is in the hospital.

Despite its grim premise and scenes of inevitable melancholy, this is an exceedingly funny book as well. At one point, a friend of Chast's looks at Elizabeth and George's pack rat pile of papers, mementos and knick-knacks and comments: "You have found the source of the river eBay." Further hilarity occurs when a bedridden Elizabeth writes a funny poem about the fall that left her immobile.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant deserves all the accolades that have come its way, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. For those who are familiar with Chast's New Yorker cartoons, it represents the realisation of her true potential. For new readers, it is an unforgettable introduction to a humorist par excellence.

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