IN AN ODD COINCIDENCE, I began reading Roz Chast’s visual memoir about her aging parents on the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. I thought I knew what to expect from Chast, having viewed more than 30 years of her New Yorker cartoons. But Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? goes way beyond the crisp wit and sly insights of those playful, childlike drawings. It is a deeply affecting piece of multimedia storytelling, incorporating sequential art, photographs, sections of handwritten text, even manually typed manuscripts of her mother’s droll poetry. Chast doesn’t alter her cartoon style to fit her subject; she handles material inappropriate to her visual approach in other ways, often through pages of ruminative prose.
Chast and I are a year apart in age. We are both only children with dead parents and a dead older sister whom our parents refused to discuss. My mother died when I was 14, and I envied the fact that Chast’s mom and dad had lived into their 90s. But unflinchingly, and with gallows humor, Chast examines the untidiness of life’s end — an untidiness that many boomers with older parents now face — as her mother and father decline from the cheery “sphere of TV commercial old age” and into “the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture.”
She describes not just their final years, but what came before: her lifetime closeness to her father, her frequent clashes with her mother, and the subjects her parents refused to talk about. One was religion: “I’m Jewish. Daddy is Jewish. You’re Jewish. End of story.” Another was the sister who had lived for only a day: “My mother referred to the entire episode as ‘that mess.’” The most forbidden subject of all, of course, was death itself: “Either there’s something or there’s nothing. Probably nothing.”
The light humor of the book’s opening pages quickly morphs into something more brutal, as lacerating as it is funny. Time and proximity, Chast demonstrates, do not a maternal relationship make. She exposes the chasm that existed between herself and her mother for much of her life. In an excruciating scene rendered in cartoon panels, she initiates “a final conversation” with her mother that, she hopes, will make sense of their troubled past.
At first glance, the comics, set in a nursing home, look like classic Chast drawings. She represents herself in familiar shorthand — with owlish glasses and a tangle of pen-stroke hair, scratched on the page as if uncalculated. Her mother is portrayed more realistically — not with a J-shaped nose, but with detailed nostrils; not with pinprick eyes, but with sad, sinking brows and deep under-eye circles. The image of the mother, like the content of the scene, is achingly real.
Instead the old woman asks, “Does it worry you?”
Startled, Chast blurts, “No.” Then, in a new talk balloon, she adds, “Does it worry you?”
The two women stare at each other for a silent panel. The viewer lingers on this space; its absence of talk balloons — Chastian chatter — is jarring, as is the black cloud of lines squiggled above Chast’s head. Her eyes are wide with astonishment and grief behind her glasses.
She finally asks, “Do you want me to stay or should I go?”
With heartbreaking indifference, and no change in the flat expression her mother wears throughout the encounter, Mrs. Chast responds, “It doesn’t matter.”
Chast doesn’t overstate the scene. But to share emotion in a nuanced and less broad fashion, she abandons drawing and explains herself in handwritten paragraphs. We feel for her as she walks to her car and sobs: “The depth of the sadness I felt surprised me. I was angry, too. Why hadn’t she tried harder to know me?”
I felt chastened. I had assumed that my sadness — that of a child forced to deal with a mother’s untimely death — was the worst pain imaginable. But Chast’s candor showed me another type of pain: one in which the distance between two living people is as unbridgeable as the distance between the living and the dead.
Between moments of profundity, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is blessedly hilarious. For many seniors, the path from independence to assisted living begins with telltale behaviors that have long been mined for comedy in popular culture. They include indifference to dirt, pack-rat tendencies, and forgetfulness. In 2001, when Chast’s story starts, her parents are seemingly compos mentis and able to live autonomously. But their apartment hints at the disintegration to come. It is preposterously stuffed with ancient magazines, prehistoric eyeglasses, random jar lids, and other strange items: if Chast drew the clutter, given her reputation for visual whimsy and inventiveness, would anyone believe that she wasn’t exaggerating? Instead, she deliberately augments her story with gritty, unembellished photos, composed not for arty effect but as a record of what they contain. The snapshots of these bizarre objects are irrefutable, like evidence at a crime scene. Likewise, the most powerful written passages in the book are just that: written. When Chast feels sadness about her mother’s indifference, she expresses that sadness in paragraphs. Many delicate situations and ideas — an episode of her mother’s incontinence, for example — are described in pages of prose. Such stories are best told, she implies, in words; they are not appropriate for her signature cartoons, documentary photos, or more realistic drawings.
Chast’s parents’ hoarding forced me to recall details that I had repressed of my own father’s decline — and his passionate attachment to worthless junk. It was 1994. I was in my 30s, he was in his 80s, and I could no longer ignore the fact that he had not thrown out any printed material acquired since I had left for college in the 1970s. One had to squeeze between piles of newsprint to cross each of his rooms.
Like my father, Chast’s mother clings to her clutter, bickering furiously over a “cruddy” oven mitt that Chast wants to discard. “Why waste your money?” she says. “That one still works.”
She clings even more tightly to her car — a powerful symbol of autonomy and in the case of Chast’s parents an emblem of their symbiosis. Chast’s father never learned to drive, and Chast herself didn’t learn until she was in her 30s. But Mrs. Chast will allow nothing to limit her mobility, not even a cataract operation that leaves her temporarily blind in one eye. “You can’t drive with one eye!” Chast exclaims. “You have no depth perception.”
“Not a problem,” her mother replies. “Daddy guided me.”
For much of the book, Roz and her father cower before her mother’s self-described “Blasts from Chast” — loud eruptions of maternal criticism. But after a severe fall from a ladder, the blasts become quieter. Still she won’t admit defeat, typing defiant poems with couplets like this: “THANK GOD, I’m well padded, / And I’m here to state, / I’m doing fine / For my age and my weight.”
Except, unfortunately, that she isn’t. Hospitalized for a grave case of diverticulitis, she recovers. But her husband doesn’t. Without his wife’s strong presence keeping order at home, he falls apart. The extent of his senility, which his wife’s micromanagement of his time and activities had camouflaged, cannot be hidden.
Chast does not regard her childhood neighborhood with nostalgia. It is the “Brooklyn of smelly hallways and neighbors having screaming fights and where no one went into Manhattan — ‘the city’ — unless it was for their job at Drudgery, Inc.” But her parents take a different view, and persuading them to consider moving to an assisted living facility isn’t easy. After checking out a variety of depressing snake pits, she eventually places them in a facility that was “nice and clean and sickeningly expensive.”
The grim reaper, a faceless Chastian figure in a hooded robe, makes his first appearance on page 10 of the book, long before the parental Chasts are ready to consider death in any but the most abstract fashion. By page 106, however, he’s hanging out in her parents’ living room, en route with them, one assumes, to the nursing home. Working swiftly, the reaper takes her father first, his leave-taking punctuated by occasional cryptic remarks uttered under the influence of morphine. Whereas her mother is allowed to linger. Worse still, she rallies, and suddenly becomes interested in food. Painfully aware of the nursing home’s cost, Chast blurts: “Where, in the five Stages of Death, is Eat Tuna Sandwich?!?!?”
But some declines cannot be stopped. In a departure from her usual drawing style, Chast sketches her mother naturalistically as she sprawls in bed, immediately before and just after her death. Whereas her father was a “kindred spirit,” her mother is not. Her father can be drawn in her familiar style, but she needs a different visual vocabulary — a more formal one — to apprehend her mother.
These somber drawings, in a style reminiscent of the German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, slow the pace of Chast’s tale. Visually, they are worlds apart from her cartoons; they recall examples from a life studies class — almost as if Chast had to return to a less mature vocabulary, the vocabulary of art school, to accommodate what is before her. The unexpected visual departure forces the reader to grasp the gravity of death. But not for too long. After 12 pages, Chast resumes her signature tone — and, for that matter, her daily life — in a wry yet heartfelt epilogue set in the bedroom closet of her Connecticut house. There, amid “shoes, old photo albums, wrapping paper, a sewing machine,” and other stuff, Chast shows us “two special boxes,” each in a velvet bag. One holds the ashes — or “cremains,” as she calls them — of her father, George Chast (1912-2007); the other holds those of her mother, Elizabeth Chast (1912-2009).
There is a hero in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant — one I would have liked to have seen more lavishly celebrated. In fact, as with the grim reaper, I would have liked to have seen it anthropomorphized. That hero is morphine, a magical substance that mitigates the indignities of old age — senility, loss of bowel control, chronic pain. My own mother died a terrible death, without sufficient medication to blunt her suffering. My father’s death was gentler — thanks to the drug.
Chast knows the magic of morphine. As noted, it eases her father’s exit from this world. In a sly drawing midway through her story, she pictures her ravaged mother puffing happily on a hookah, in a room full of ice cream and art books. She puts forth a modest proposal that will resonate with anyone who has watched parents or other beloveds die. To me, this is the most powerful message of the book: “I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly ‘done,’ there was something to look forward to,” she writes. “Perhaps opium or heroin. So you became addicted. So what?”
She adds, “Extreme palliative care, for when you’ve had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRIs, the boring food, and the pills that don’t do anything at all. Would that be so bad?”
After accompanying Chast on her harrowing ride, the reader should have no doubt about the answer.
Author M. G. Lord, who was a longtime syndicated political cartoonist based at Newsday, has again picked up her pen to draw a graphic novel set in what she considers an ideal world: it has no people in it.