Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
by Roz Chast
Published August, 2014
Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a graphic memoir about a time in her parents’ lives when, having both turned 90, they were:
slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age –
• Totally Independent!!
• Just Like A Normal Adult, But With SILVER HAIR!!!
– and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture.
It concerns, in other words, a time when ‘SOMETHING WAS COMING DOWN THE PIKE’.
The book is brilliant – here’s evidence: I bought it for a good friend but never gave it to him, getting him instead, in haste, at the San Francisco International Airport bookstore, Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2012). Chast’s book, I decided, was TOO GOOD for my good friend. (That’s me dreaming up the text part of a Chast-like comic panel to go with my claim for the book’s superior quality. The story, Chast-like again, is true.)
Now, I am not going to parade in front of you the many examples of graphic memoirs, which by now are legion, dealing with the loss of a parent, or with the way we get made and unmade by tragedy, memory and family, to show you I know my stuff. I don’t know my stuff that much. I know, only up to a point, my Spiegelmans, Gaimans and Bechdels. Chris Ware and David Small I am familiar with. But I am a mere toe-dipper, not an aficionado, which is to say I stumbled onto Chast’s book (actually my partner reminds me he showed it to me) in a bookshop, rather than waiting for it and crossing days off the calendar with a black texta. I had liked Chast’s New Yorker cartoons. This book is on a different plane.
Chast’s parents were much older than other kids’ parents, more a grandparental look and feel. They were born ten days apart in 1912, and grew up two blocks apart in East Harlem, attending the same fifth-grade class and only ever dating each other. ‘Aside from WWII, work, illness and going to the bathroom, they did everything together.’ Elizabeth washed George’s hair. Roz was their only child. For all of her life, her parents lived in the same apartment in Brooklyn. Not the Brooklyn of artists, writers and hipsters: ‘This was DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have been left behind by everything and everyone.’
Chast not only capitalises DEEP, she underlines it as well, which is significant, worth talking about. And we will talk about it, soon, and about quotation marks, exclamation marks, straight and curly underlines, asterixes, annotations and all the soaring work Chast gets each of them to do for her. For now, to avoid unnecessary confusion (necessary confusion is an altogether different deal), you should know that my quotation marks are single when I am quoting Chast and deliberately double when I am reproducing Chast’s own double quotation marks, a form of punctuation Chast uses frequently and pointedly.
She hated her childhood, hated Brooklyn. Sixteen years old and getting ready to leave for college, she was not the only one relieved. Her parents ‘had their own thing going’ and that thing worked much better without their daughter as a third wheel. Chast tells us this early in the book. Her parents referred to each other, without any irony, as “soul mates”.
Elizabeth: The rocks in his head match the holes in mine!
Elizabeth: “Codependent”? Of course we’re codependent!
George: Thank GOD!!!
George taught high-school French and Spanish. He also spoke Italian and Yiddish (they were Jewish), loved words and their origins, and stuffed his extensively annotated dictionaries with “relevant” clippings from newspapers and magazines. His neuroticism – he did not drive, swim, ride a bike or change lightbulbs, and refused to consider eating raw apples – did not make him a deadbeat father. Roz and George watched television shows together, played card games, discussed the Beatles, took walks to get a malted shake or a grilled cheese at a local store, and generally kept each other company. He was kind, loving, sensitive. Thin-skinned, too – like his daughter.
And unlike his wife. Elizabeth had wanted to be a concert pianist but ended up assistant principal at an elementary school. Piano ‘came too easily to me’ was the way she explained it to Roz. How is that for a piece of off-hand career advice? Her dominant, decisive personality was a perfect match for the assistant principalship. She still played piano at home for an hour after work, a time when Roz and George would ‘cower in admiration on the couch’. Right through her eighties, she was part of a group called Classical Pianists in Retirement: CPR. A notable thing about Elizabeth – one of many – was her volcanic, equitably dispersed fury. ‘Those stupid enough to get her angry got what she liked to call “a blast from Chast”.’ Both George and Roz were scared of her. It wasn’t just being slung against the walls by the explosion, but also the health effects of the explosion on the exploder (owing to the exploder’s high blood pressure) and, following on from that, the ever-present burden of guilt – if the blast were to happen, ‘it would be because we did it to her’.
See, Elizabeth has already taken up so much more space than George, which is typical really.
In 1990, Chast, 36 at the time, moved with her husband, their three-year-old son and a daughter-on-her-merry-way, out of New York and into the suburbs of Connecticut. She did not go back to her parents’ apartment for eleven years. From time to time, Elizabeth and George would visit her and the kids in their leafy suburbia. Then out of the blue Chast felt an intense, inexplicable need to see her parents in their ‘natural habitat’. She got on a train and headed into Brooklyn on September 9, 2001. A Sunday.
This is where the story essentially begins. She comes. She sees grime everywhere, which is not at all the same thing as your garden-variety dirt or mess. Alarm bells toll. For whom? For her. She tries to clean. Her parents stop her, incensed. She relents. ‘I wasn’t great as a caretaker, and they weren’t great at being taken care of.’ Then: 9/11. Then: the realisation that the grime was part of something much bigger. Her parents were old, the kind of old that gets systematically hidden in our culture and that encompasses, in no particular order, and among countless other ‘can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?’ things:
– falls, triggering a sequence of irreversible medical emergencies;
– senility and paranoia;
– the burning heartbreak of relinquishing last vestiges of autonomy;
– aborted elevator-to-front-door marathons; and
– the genuinely insane amounts of money disappearing daily, weekly, down one black hole or another.
Chast, unlike most of her memoirising peers, has quite a bit to say about money. ‘Everything took time and cost money,’ she writes. ‘It was enraging and depressing.’ Her inclusion of actual figures – the round-the-clock care her mother requires after her father’s death sees them go through about $14 000 a month – does not ever seem in poor taste. The not dancing around the numbers, the plainspokenness of it, feels right.
Chast burrows into this feral old age and draws it out with uncanny, page-expanding, emotional precision. It is not reporting from the trenches, or a facing-down of the last frontier, but something else. Chast is giving over a whole multi-tracked, multi-voiced, sensory feast of a book to something – something barely bearable sometimes, and infused with pain and dread always; something that gets sprinted past, or poeticised to within an inch of its life, or else chronicled with a deadly, breathless earnestness (in these matters earnestness can be deadly) – and she does it in such a way that I could not tear myself away from her book.
Why? How? Art Spiegelman said comics are the art ‘of turning time back into space’. Mark Twain said humour equals ‘tragedy plus time’. It must be some alchemic melding of the two. Chast lays down her parents’ final years, page after page, panel after unexpected panel, and the spatialisation of that extraterrestrial-seeming timeless time is part of the book’s magic, together with the gaps and cracks opened up between the verbal and visual tracks, the constant little fireworks set off by words and images rubbing against each other, riffs, deepenings, silences, gliding rhythmic shifts – and humour too, the sort that brings us closer than pathos or stripped-back somber witnessing can to the tragedy of a human’s protracted, anguished decline. Then there is the way the form itself allows Chast to slide hither and thither, as if on a well-oiled flying fox: side to side between different emotional and narrative registers; up, down and around through time.
Her parents’ post-photogenic old age amplifies their personalities. George ‘chain-worries’. By now the toaster is beyond him (do you put the bread in or press the lever down first?), not to mention the door lock. He is also getting ‘nuttier’, which is not so screamingly obvious inside the predictable Elizabeth-controlled home environment, but is increasingly alarming in every other setting.
93-year-old Elizabeth climbs to the top of the Crazy Closet (a vertical attic of sorts in the middle of a room, stuffed to smithereens with stuff) to find ‘a signed certificate from “KING NEPTUNE”!’ that she and George got when they crossed the equator ‘many, many years ago’. Roz, on the phone, begs her please, please, not to go looking for the dumb certificate no one is interested in seeing ever. Elizabeth is not to be re-routed. In bed after falling off a stepstool in pursuit of the King Neptune note, and having refused to go to hospital (she has a lifelong aversion to doctors with their ‘God complex’), Elizabeth writes a poem that Chast reproduces and illustrates. In the poem, Elizabeth humorously castigates herself for being ridiculous – what was she thinking climbing on top of things to get things at her non-climbing age? The poem ends:
As I mentioned at the start,
It’s mankind’s fate;
To grow old too soon,
To get smart, too late!
It is utterly poignant. As are the other two poems by Elizabeth in the book – one written from bed at Maimonides Hospital after she was diagnosed with acute diverticulitis; the other, entitled ‘The Visit’, celebrating the joy that their daughter’s ‘brief’ but life-giving visits bring to her parents. The Elizabeth who emerges from these poems is funnier than we expected her to be, more self-aware. She is a powerful figure – that much we knew – but also a powerfully dignified one. And her life force is … well, it is something to behold. On the issue of “extraordinary measures” to prolong her life, Elizabeth’s position is unequivocal: ‘I don’t want to be a PULSATING PIECE OF PROTOPLASM!’
Chast graphically annotates ‘The Visit’, confirming factual bits, providing background information, giving visual representation to the sentiments expressed, pulling out, like squashed sultanas out of a bun, those obligatory bits of buried criticism (the visits weren’t ‘that brief’), and urging restraint in the daughter-overpraising department. It’s funny, and true to the way families work. Families, without exception, are in the business of annotating each other’s stories.
Elizabeth and George hang on to their old life for dear life, but at the age of 94, after 48 years in their apartment, they move to an assisted living home – known as ‘the Place’ – near Roz’s house in Connecticut, and Roz begins ‘the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of going through my parents’ possessions’. As a child she never “explored” when her parents were out of the house. So this is her first time going through ‘EVERYTHING’. Everything is a drawer of jar lids, pairs of her mother’s glasses from before Roz was born, her father’s unfixable Schick shavers, “the cheese-tainer” that has been haunting the fridge since the 1960s. Nothing in the way of life-changing secrets or revelations. No expensive or rare items either – nothing whose value had gone unnoticed but, hey, now we’ll sell it for a song. As she confronts the apartment, Chast does not hide the witches’ brew inside her: love, heart-tearing grief, revulsion, and the unleashed, unquenched instincts of the hunter. All she finds is four rooms stuffed with ‘dusty old junk’. That’s life for you.
The experience is edifying. Once you’ve gone through it, Chast writes, ‘you can never look at YOUR stuff in the same way’. What happens is you ‘start to look at your stuff a little postmortemistically’ (curly underline).
Chast goes through it all. She sorts, classifies, photographs. Some photos make it into the book – every chipped and broken pencil her parents owned, stuffed for god-knows-how-long into a Vernonville Farms milk carton; every handbag (Chast calls them ‘purses’) of Elizabeth’s ever; the blender from the 1950s, Chast’s age, or possibly older, still in use. A few pages later, there is a black-and-white photo of Roz in a headscarf and thick-framed black glasses that are in fashion now. Taken in February 1966, it sits in the middle of a white page. Chast is eleven. She looks a tired 35. She looks as if childhood is an illness or a curse.
Why are these photographs so piercing, so affecting? I read a lot of scholarly disquisitions on the subject trying to figure out why. In the end, I was left unconvinced and wondered – am I overreaching here? most likely! – if they were powerful in the way those black-and-white photographs in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) and The Emigrants (1992) are powerful. Unlike Sebald’s photographs, Chast’s are captioned and refer explicitly to the story she is telling, although they are also more-than-illustrative and certainly in no way subservient to the narrative. As with Sebald, they feel both part of the book and apart from the book, and the secret logic of their co-presence with the book’s other elements – drawings, words – is addressed to memory, not to identity, and not even to truth.
‘The reason why I draw, write, take photographs is that I have such a horror of the way you just forget things. For me it is a way of remembering,’ Chast said in an interview.
The book is very funny. I don’t know if mine is a common response and whether the laughs-per-page ratio (I am being crass here) increases the closer the subject matter is to the reader, nor whether there is – there must be! – any correlation between the number of laughs (crass again) and the number of jolts and tugs at the heart.
Elizabeth and George do not trust banks, try to spend as little money as possible and, as we know by now, never throw anything away. How to tackle their hoarding and scrimping (a new word for me; thank you, Roz Chast!) without making them seem grotesque? Chast does it partly through a standalone series of panels headed ‘Sheer Lunacy’. Elizabeth sees stockings on sale at 80% off and wants them. Never mind that she can easily afford full-price stockings and the items on sale are the wrong size and/or colour. How about opening up four pairs of ‘extra-extra-extra petite’ stockings in ‘lobster bisque’ and making one good pair out of them, she asks her daughter? Or getting a pair of ‘quintuple queens’ in ‘avocado’ and turning them into three pairs? Think of the savings. It’s too whimsical to feel like a cheap shot, too funny. Also, too precise. In the refracted light of Elizabeth’s lunacy, our own aspirational selves feel every bit as ludicrous. Everyone is crazy. Life itself, boys and girls, is crazy. Sooner or later you come to see that there is no sane way to buy a pair of stockings.
How to approach the crisis of elderly parents falling into dependency on their children? Chast does it with a story Elizabeth likes to tell. It dates back to the good times: she and George are still in their home, still holding on to autonomy. The story, in its many iterations, is about what happened to the ‘Mellmans’. You see, the Mellmans’ daughter got her mum and dad to sign everything over to her, then, naturally, dumped them in a nursing home while the ink was still wet on those treacherous forms. And what did she do with their money? She went and bought herself ‘a DRAWERFUL of CASHMERE SWEATERS’. Again this is funny, and patently absurd, but in Chast’s hands the cashmere story sneakily catches the pain of everybody in the equation – parents mortified by their defencelessness; kids feeling guilty, forever wrong-footed, drained. Most of the time, no one is screwing anyone, not really, yet somehow everyone feels screwed.
Chast’s humour is often anarchic:
I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly “done”, there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you became addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlours for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. 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?
This is comedy that, in the words of Howard Jacobson, one of the funniest living writers in English, has a special licence to speak of ‘the absurdity of our supposing that we understand, that truth will stay still for us, that events will turn out as we think they should’. Because – we don’t, it won’t, they never do.
Chast has a whole bag of crafty devices, neither tics nor tricks, for animating and complicating the book’s textual bits. Quotation marks, for example, are used for euphemisms, weasel words, bits of inflated or overheated language, and for those distinctive idiomatic expressions she doesn’t want translated into common-sensish. On her first trip back in 2001, Chast gets off at Newkirk on the IRT Brooklyn Line and is walking ten blocks to her parents’ home, past old women in scarves with stuffed bags on wheels, past the Dim & Dusty shop, the Bruised Fruit Store, the Out-of-Business Methodone Clinic: ‘Everyone on the street looked like they hated their lives, but maybe I was “projecting”.’ Chast’s paternal grandmother was the only girl out of nine children, the only one to survive the Russian cholera epidemic, and she gave birth to George, her only child, by caesarean section. Hers was a tragic life: ‘Her father’s throat got cut “from ear to ear” in a forest by “bandits”.’ As for giving birth to George, it involved, according to Elizabeth, “opening her up from her neck to her you-know-what”.
Chast capitalises for emphasis, but this amping up doesn’t flatten the nuance. 9/11 just happened. Elizabeth and George are still able-bodied and mobile, and Elizabeth, for one, is clear that she will not be made scared. ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to march right down to that Afghani restaurant around the corner and HAVE LUNCH THERE!’ George interjects, meekly, points out the restaurant has been there three years and she has shown no interest in lunching there before. ‘Do you really think,’ he asks, ‘that’s WISE?’ ‘What’s so not WISE about it?’ Elizabeth retorts. ‘I am in the mood for a little AFGHANI CUISINE!’
Sometimes Chast bolds, capitalises and underlines simultaneously. Elizabeth’s cleaning philosophy when Roz was growing up is summed up thus: ‘You have to DUST (underlined)! If you don’t, the dust gets into all the interstices (curly underline) of the furniture and BREAKS IT (underline × 2) ALL APART!!! (bold, capitals, underline × 3). The effect is not of shrieking or shouting; it is of exhilarating polyphonic complexity.
Invariably, the funniness makes us less protected against heartbreak. When her father is dead and her mother confined largely to her bed, Chast tries to start a conversation about the kind of relationship – ‘Why hadn’t she tried harder to know me?’ – they could have had. It is too late. Too late to get to know each other. Too late to turn it around or make sense of this difficult, distant thing between them. The best they can do is say ‘I love you’, and that’s where they must leave it. It is as far as they can go. Strangers who love each other – what does it even mean?
And yet Chast does not push for meaning, or resolution. There is no labouring over the entrails, no mining or milking in this book, which is a big part of how it gets to be so good. ‘It’s amazing what the living expect of the dying,’ writes Meghan Daum in an essay on the passing of her mother:
We expect wisdom, insight, bursts of clarity that are then
reported back to the undying in the urgent staccato of a telegram:
I have the answer. Stop. They’re waiting for me. Stop. Everyone
who died before. Stop. And they look great. Stop. We expect
them to reminisce over photos, to accept apologies and to make
them, to be sad, to be angry, to be grateful. We expect them to
clear our consciences, to confirm our fantasies.
Chast’s expectations are modest. Her feelings are not. ‘If you can pass the job on to someone else,’ she writes, ‘I’d recommend it. If not, you have my total sympathy.’
I love Chast’s book, but I do have my misgivings. My mother, who is in her early seventies, once asked me to promise that I would never write about her and my dad if or when things turn to shit. I promised. I meant it. The indignity of the arse-end of old age being documented by your arty, questing kids or grandkids in the name of truth-as-they-know-it or some deeper understanding of the human condition – there is a lot of this stuff around – struck Mum as a form of violation, and as bad taste; also, as meaningless. What’s the point of depicting the relationship with your parents at the moment when they can no longer answer you back, when they are losing themselves, leaving the room? However loving or deep-digging the depiction, what reconciliation can be achieved under such conditions? What renewed mutual understanding?
I do not know the answer to that. Or, rather, I know many possible answers but I don’t want to rehearse them here. Mum is right. And yet Chast’s book is a jewel. This shall, by rights, remain unresolved.