- By Erika Milvy
(Roz Chast's graphic memoir about caregiving for her parents, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, just won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and is a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. The National Book Award winners will be announced Nov. 19.)
At 59, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast has just published her first graphic memoir, called Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
It's the story of the final years of her parents’ lives and is told through cartoons, photographs, text and even a few poems.
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Chast walks us through her parents declining health and the countless details, decisions and grisly realities involved.
Despite all the unpleasantness, the book is a charmingly offbeat and often funny account of her relationship with her exasperating parents.
Next Avenue: Your parents made for some great material. Did they get your humor?
Chast: Not really. I think that they were proud of me, and they were very, very happy that my work appeared in The New Yorker. But I don’t think that my sense of humor and their sense of humor were the same thing. For sure.
I know the book came out after they died. But what would your parents have thought of you doing this project?
Oh God, I don’t know … I think my father might have been amused at some of it. I like to think that he would have been. Not so sure about my mother.
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Your parents were first-generation Jewish Americans who lived in the same Brooklyn apartment their whole life. Readers get to know them a bit with your cartoon snapshots and anecdotes. Do you see the book as some sort of tribute to them?
In some ways. It’s a way of remembering, you know? Putting something in a story or a cartoon and drawings or writing about it is a way to not have everything just evaporate into nothingness, which sort of fills me with terror.
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There’s a lot of helpful information, too, like you discuss how there’s such a thing as an “elder lawyer.” It almost strikes me as instructional material for people who are about to enter this phase. Did you intend to provide advice?
Yes, there was an aspect of that. There was so much about this part of life that I knew nothing, nothing, nothing about. I mean, I really was like that person with the three panels with Mrs. McGillicuddy — I don’t know if you read it.
You drew three panels of what “the end” of life would be like. You never thought the middle panel was going to last as long as it did. Your mother hung on for quite a while.
That middle panel for me — I had no idea, I really did think, “OK, one day when they’re like 90 or 95 they won’t feel well, and then there will be this three weeks of them fading away, and then they’ll have a death rattle, and then they’ll die.”
One thing that also strikes me is that you really seem to be doing this alone in the book. You were an only child and felt a lot of guilt and worried that you were a bad daughter.
I look back and I think, should I have done this? Should I have done that? I knew it was impossible to have them live with me. It would have driven me — and it would have made everyone — insane. But did I do good enough in taking care of them? Would I have done anything differently if I had had a different kind of relationship with my mother?
You ask yourself, “When are they going to die? This is getting very expensive.” It's an honest, probably very common thought, but it’s something most people don’t feel comfortable saying out loud.
Yeah, it is. It is kind of awful to admit it. But it’s shockingly expensive. And heartbreaking in so many ways, because I know how hard my parents worked and how much they denied themselves. And to just see at the end how fast all their money went was really sad. There’s something just terrible, terrible, terrible about it.
The book ends with a series of realistic illustrations of your mother on her deathbed. These drawings really change the tone of the book. Your New Yorker characters are frequently zany or quirky. Your cartooning has a jittery, childlike anxiety. But these illustrations are arresting, because they are realistic and quiet and still. And also unflinchingly intimate.
Well, at the end of her life that’s what I did when I visited her. It was very instinctive, a way of bearing witness. And it’s what I do. She wasn’t awake for most of it. It was very surreal. I had no idea how long this was going to go on. It was actually sort of terrifying because we were running out of money. It was awful. And also heartbreakingly sad because I knew her and I knew that this is not what she was. She was a very alive person. She played the piano, and she bossed people around, and she was opinionated.
The pictures are also surprising because here’s Roz Chast not joking around. It's only been recently that comics and animation have earned any kind of status as an art form. Now graphic novels on serious topics are common. You started out long before Pixar, long before Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Do you have any thoughts about the growing legitimacy of the cartoon genre?
It’s so different now. I mean when I went to The Rhode Island School of Design art school, I don’t think cartoons had any legitimacy at all. The one time in my life when I stopped doing cartoons was when I was in art school because I felt ashamed and embarrassed. It just didn’t seem like art at all.
Do you get tired of people using words like "quirky" about your work?
No. There are worse words.