SEVERAL YEARS AGO, at the Small Press Expo outside Washington, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast told me she was working on her first real graphic novel — not a bound collection of her great magazine cartoons, but rather a true-life narrative about her and her recently deceased parents.
“I couldn’t write it while they were still alive,” Chast told me. This memoir would be too personal, and too poignant, to share with the world while Mom and Dad could read it, and see their illnesses and ailments depicted on the page, as well as Chast’s raw honesty about what you go through when you care for your dying parents.
Her new book, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” is one of the best memoirs on mortality I’ve ever read, let alone about the difficult specifics of eldercare. (Chast will speak tonight at Politics & Prose in Northwest Washington to discuss the book.)]
['A LITTLE DISTANCE': Roz Chast talks about what moved her to write her eldercare memoir]
In 2007, Chast had to move her folks out of the history-packed and -stacked home in New York her parents had inhabited for a half-century, and into a care facility. Her father died that year, and Chast told me that brought her a certain peace. Her relationship with her mother was more complex, however, more fraught with a lifetime of friction and not seeing eye to eye, as if they were tuned to different stations and all communication sparked static. When her mother died two years later, Chast did not have easy closure to mourn. “It was as if,” Chast told me wryly, “she hadn’t read the manual on what you’re supposed to say to [your children] at the end of life.”
Her graphic novel is an achievement of dark humor that rings utterly true. There is Chast’s gifted ear for the shorthanded, idiosyncratic dialogue that every family develops only over long years. And there is Chast’s knowing observational eye for the stuff of life that becomes imbued with so much family meaning, even if in death these objects must be discarded or dispensed as the living keep going — like physical antiques as emotional flotsam.
Chast adapts this past decade of her life into a superbly incisive commentary on the obstacles of eldercare, as well as on her own family’s ability to live in denial of mortality until it was entirely imminent.
Mostly, though, this is the humor-leavened portrait of a family saying its long goodbyes, awkwardly and glancingly and painfully, muddling through in the most human of ways.
Chast’s achievement makes me glad she decided not to draw about something more “pleasant”? Because there is deep pleasure in every last artful panel.
Oh, there is death. The rest is eloquence.