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ROZ CHAST MASTERPIECE

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir
By NCS Reuben Award winner New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast
228 7.5x9.5-inch pages
color
2014 Bloomsbury
hardcover
$28

Roz Chast's parents, she tells us, never wanted to discuss death. And so she has produced an entire book about their deaths, beginning her narrative on September 11, 2001, and continuing it through her father’s death on October 17, 2007 and her mother’s on September 30, 2009. Her parents married in 1938 and lived in a hermetic world, the population restricted to the two of them — plus Roz, when she came along fourteen years later. Chast’s mother, Elizabeth, dominated the home; her father, George, was timid and dominated. The book consists partly of short, one-page and sometimes two-page comic strips that present numerous examples of their personalities interacting in their last years until they die. Interspersed with the strips are illustrated prose passages. Chast spares us no agonies, physical or mental. Nor does she spare herself: she tells about her guilt when she moves her parents into a home and when she discusses their finances: if they spend all their money in assisted living, there won’t be anything left for Roz.

This book has caused more excitement in the publishing world than I would have expected. The New Yorker, Chast’s home base, printed 12 pages of it in the magazine for the March 10, 2014 issue. Unprecedented. No New Yorker cartoonist has received such adulation from the editors. Why this? Why now? I suppose it’s because it’s her first “graphic novel” — er, memoir. So how does she stack up as a graphic novelist? Better than many, as it turns out.

Very little of the typical Chast humor shows up in this paean to her parents’ eccentricities. Very few lists. The book can be seen as a long session of kvetching (complaining in Yiddish). A little less extreme than most examples of this cultural phenomenon, but kvetching nontheless. Perhaps because the book is atypical Roz Chast, I was able to finish it. But I’d also bought the volume with the sole intention of reviewing it; so I had to read it. I started by forcing myself; I finished thoroughly rapt.

And how does Pleasant stack up as a graphic “memoir”? Pretty good. Pretty damn good, as befitting the recent winner of the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben as Cartoonist of the Year.

As I’ve observed before, many graphic autobiographies (and biographies) consist mostly of narrative prose in captions illustrated by pictures in the accompanying panels. The pictures add nothing to the narrative. They do not “tell” the story; they merely decorate it.

But Chast’s short comic strips reveal one of the ways the cartooning arts can contribute to telling a story.

Each strip enacts a rhetorical point Chast wishes to make. The strip’s panels pace the incidents in an event, building to a concluding “punchline” panel that exemplifies the topic at hand. The distinctive capabilities of cartooning are deftly deployed—timing for impact, close-ups to enhance intensity, shifting perspective for visual variety.

Chast1

Chast often abandons the comic strip method to employ single panel pictures that add emotional impact to the accompanying hand-lettered prose. The pictures, with speech balloons, supply some humor or atmospherics. They don’t illustrate the prose: they enhance it.

And Chast frequently combines the two methods on a single page, slipping back and forth from strip format to text, from sequential pictures to enhancing illustrations.

The book is thus a collection of vignettes about her parents’ personalities and lives together and about Chast’s engagement in and reaction to their final agonies. There is a kind of narrative in the book, but it’s the narrative of a chronology rather than a continuous story. The chronological collection adds up, the vignettes accumulate evidence, creating a complex portrait of the people involved in the narrative and of the heartbreak of their last days. The method is more emotionally engaging than the illustrated prose narratives of the usual “graphic biography.” And the portrait of the people is more accurate.

Threaded throughout the one- and two-page comic strips are pages of Chast’s labored spidery printing as she resorts to prose to tell her story — as if pictures are no longer adequate to the task Chast has imposed upon herself. These prose pages become more frequent as her mother is dying. But among the last pages are a dozen that just picture her mother’s face in her last days. Just her face. No words.

While an attendant went to fetch “the people that one fetches when someone at the Place dies,” Chast was left alone with her mother’s body. “I drew her,” Chast writes. “I didn’t know what else to do. I had been drawing her all summer, since the conversations had been reduced to almost nothing.”

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For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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