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The Book: About Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

“Between their one-bad-thing-after-another lives and the Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, in which they’d both lost family…who could blame them for not wanting to talk about death?” – Roz Chast in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Roz Chast’s parents were in their mid-90s, living in the same run-down Brooklyn apartment they’d been in for 48 years and where Chast grew up, when her mother’s physical health and father’s mental state necessitated a change. “Gut-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Chast’s memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, is a mix of four-color cartoons, family photos, sketches, found documents, and narrative storytelling that chronicles the conflicting emotions, memories, and practical challenges of her parents’ last years and passing.

With chapter titles like “The Beginning of the End,” “The Elder Lawyer,” and “Kleenex Abounding,” Chast’s humor guides us through events all too familiar to many Americans, from cleaning out the detritus of her parents’ cluttered apartment to the sudden learning curve and anxiety associated with wills, health-care proxy and power-of-attorney forms, end-of-life directives, assisted-living costs, and weird cravings for tuna fish sandwiches. “Her idiosyncratic cartoonist’s style cocoons this profound story of suffering in laughter,” noted the National Book Foundation. The book comes to life “in vivid layers of anxiety, guilt, grime, humor, love, and sadness.”

The memoir begins with Chast going back after a long hiatus to check in on her parents in Brooklyn—“not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters,” she explained, but the Brooklyn of “smelly hallways and neighbors having screaming fights” and “people who have been left behind by everything and everyone.” Her mother, Elizabeth, was built like a peasant, she’d say: short, solid, and strong. A former assistant principal in an elementary school, she was decisive, domineering, unafraid to make enemies, and prone to loud, angry outbursts she called “a blast from Chast,” especially toward her husband and daughter.

Chast as a child was more like her father, George, a gentle, easily distracted man and a chronic worrier. He was a high school French and Spanish teacher who also spoke Italian and Yiddish and loved words and languages, but he couldn’t handle simple everyday tasks. He never learned to drive or swim, and never used the stove except to boil water for tea. Whereas Chast’s mother had a thick skin, he did not and was intimidated by his wife, most often doing what she told him to do.

Born ten days apart and married in 1938, her parents did everything together in a rhythm all their own. Their concept of “being happy,” wrote Chast, quoting her mother, “was for modern people or movie stars. I.e., degenerates.” They were frugal and at home amidst a half-century buildup of saved articles: a drawer of pencils; piles of defunct bank books; and a closet full of old galoshes, fly swatters, tattered bathrobes, and broken manual typewriters.

It was a need to look into this closet that caused Elizabeth to fall off a ladder and end up in the hospital. Chast takes her father back to her home in Connecticut to look after him during her mother’s absence, but he becomes disoriented and increasingly frantic about mundane and sometimes imaginary worries. When it becomes clear that her parents can’t go on living as they had been for decades, Chast begins the journey of moving them into an assisted living facility; the “massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job” of going through their possessions; and preparing for their long and expensive decline. “We don’t deal with death in this society,” said Chast. “We pretend it doesn’t exist. Crank up the Muzak and spray the whole topic with room freshener” (GeriPal).

Chast’s best coping mechanism through it all was to draw and take notes. “Cartoons, as it happens, are tailor-made for the absurdities of old age, illness and dementia, the odd dramas and grinding repetition expertly illustrated by copious exclamation points, capital letters and antic drawings” (New York Times). Her lines, in both her words and drawings, are jittery “like a very old person’s voice” or a “polygraph having a nervous breakdown” (Boston Globe).

Writing this book, said Chast, was not cathartic. “I didn’t write it for catharsis. I think, especially with my parents, I wanted to remember who they were” (PBS). “I hope it comes across that my feelings for them were complex, but that I do think of them as amazing people. I wanted a different kind of relationship with my mother, but it was too late for that. I wrote the book to help those going through this, and to make them feel they’re not alone. You do get through it” (Publishers Weekly).


Adapted from the NEA Big Read website