It takes a special sort of talent to be able to make drawings of your own 97-year-old mother on her deathbed funny. The person with that gift is Roz Chast. Subscribers to the New Yorker will already be familiar with her marvellous cartoons, which often feature elderly and over-neurotic parents shouting dire imprecations to their rather dazed and mild-looking adult offspring. Their warnings tend to concern such mortal perils as crossing the road, running to answer the telephone or touching the handrail on public transport (the germs!). The subjects are from Brooklyn, but the appeal is universal: visiting a friend in Athens the other day, I saw a Chast cartoon stuck to the fridge door.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a graphic memoir of Chast’s own parents. Or rather, an account of their extreme old age, ailments and death. If you have a hated old aunt or an obdurately ancient mother-in-law and you’re stuck for what to give them for Christmas, this would make the most tactless and unkind present it is possible to imagine.
Almost nothing is sacred here. Dignity? Forget it! There’s the dust and grime and accumulation of the parents’ apartment, their pathetic fears and stubborn refusal to face the reality of being infirm and slightly gaga; in time there are incontinence pads, bedsores, gaping mouths. The only thing Roz Chast hasn’t done is draw her parents’ bottoms. And she doesn’t even pretend not to mind the enormous financial cost of their long-term residential care and nursing.
You might surmise that Chast loathed her parents, but the picture which emerges is oddly affectionate. Her mother was a harridan, certainly, a woman who preferred to be right about everything than to be loved. She seems to have taken an odd pride in her own bad temper, announcing the fact with some triumph when she had given someone what she called, ‘A blast from the Chast’.
The father was more complicated and gentler, but is no more sparingly drawn and described, complete with bizarre food phobias, acute hypochondria and chronic over-dependence on his wife. He seems to have been incapable of changing a light bulb, let alone protecting his daughter from her mother’s fury. It is no surprise that such a couple had few friends. It can’t have been easy to be their only child.
Being funny must have saved Roz Chast’s life, really. What could have been an unbearable burden became the source material for her brilliant little sketches of family life. As was the case with her great predecessor, Charles Addams, subjects not hitherto associated with humour, let alone cartoons, became a mainstay. Addams’s subject was the macabre, while Chast’s is anxiety, boredom and dread. It is a pecularity of the cartoon strip that it should lend itself so well to dark and complicated material, whether the Holocaust, the ideas of Bertrand Russell, or strange sexual proclivities. And of course jokes have always been a place in which the unsayable can be expressed. This combination perhaps explains the growing popularity of the graphic novel.
The best things in this book occur before her subjects become too doddery, while they’re still conscious and distinct. Among them is the ‘Wheel of Doom’, in which Chast imagines a roulette-style game in which — according to her parents — you might be killed from an infection caused by applying mascara, by a falling flower pot, or a flying baseball. Poor Mr and Mrs Chast always felt that nothing was safe and in her ghoulish and hilarious depiction their daughter has certainly proved them right.
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