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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Roz Chast’s new book about the last years of her mother and father’s lives is a masterpiece.

As the publisher’s website for this remarkable volume notes, “In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents. When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the ‘crazy closet’—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents’ seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies—an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades—the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care. An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can We Talk about Something More Pleasant? show[s] the full range of Roz Chast’s talent as cartoonist and storyteller.”

This last sentence is especially true; Chast’s mordantly sardonic cartoons of domestic life, which have graced The New Yorker for decades, are always grimly funny and all-too-accurate, but here, she has the space to really stretch out and deal with the subject matter at considerable length, and the results are astonishing. George and Elizabeth Chast lived together for more than forty years in a small, untidy apartment in a rather depressing section of Brooklyn; Elizabeth was, by all accounts, wildly domineering, while George was so inept and cowed that he couldn’t even use a toaster without worrying about the possible consequences. Nevertheless, they loved each other deeply, and as old age crept up on them, bad things began to happen.

Much against her will, Roz was drafted into the entire process of intervening when they fell and had to go to the hospital; when it became impossible for them to live anymore at the apartment they had shared for so long; then moving them into an assisted care facility; and finally dealing with slow, agonizing death watch that took far too long to bring release to them both. Drawn with passionate intensity and care throughout – the entire volume is written in Chast’s own hand, and illustrated throughout with drawings, photographs, poems that her mother wrote, and other ephemera – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? emerges as much more than a typical memoir, if only because nothing seems to come between the page and Roz Chast’s expressive prose and illustrations.

It’s obviously a work of anguished love, riddled with endless details of recalled memories, conversations that seemed to go nowhere and ended in fights or resignation, and punctuated by a full page few “splash” panels, such as an unforgettable cartoon image of George welcoming his wife home after a lengthy stay in this hospital with the single word “Elizabeth!” – a scene heartbreaking in its intensity. The book builds and builds towards its inevitable conclusion – first George’s death, and then Elizabeth’s – and towards the end of the volume, Chast abandons her cartoon style to include a series of twelve straightforward line drawings, breathtaking in their intimacy, of Elizabeth’s last days in hospice care, ending with a drawing of her mother right after her death.

“I drew her. I didn’t know what else to do” Chast writes, but in doing this, she’s not only unburdened herself of a narrative of incredible difficulty and loss, but also has given her readers a much more accurate picture of what the end of life is often like – not just drifting off to sleep painlessly, but dying with difficulty and anger. It’s clear from the text that though Roz loved both her parents, she felt much closer to her father, while her mother’s continual need to dominate everything and everyone around her drove her to distraction. Roz could could sit up quietly with her father watching The Twilight Zone as a child, but was routinely subjected to what her mother termed “a blast from Chast” whenever Elizabeth was upset about something, which was quite often.

In this loving, meticulously drawn and measured memoir, Roz Chast has rendered us all a remarkable service, making her own life come alive, as well as the lives of her parents, and providing a road map for the journey into old age that most of us will inevitably wind up taking, whether we like it or not, as we deal with our parents’ mortality, as well as our own. By turns wryly humorous and deadly (literally) serious, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is easily one of the most impressive books of the year, and one that repays repeated readings, no matter how difficult the subject matter might be to deal with.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a book you should read – now.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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