After reading New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast's fine graphic memoir, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" a paraphrase of Tolstoy's observation about families comes to mind: All ordinary families are alike; each very odd family is very odd in its own way.
Chast's parents, George and Elizabeth, descendants of Russian Jews, were born 10 days apart in 1912. They came from the same Harlem immigrant neighborhood, went to the same schools and married in 1938. Sixteen years later daughter Roz arrives, an infant intruder into an exclusive relationship, resulting in a nuclear family of oddness and almost surreal dysfunction: The Chasts of Brooklyn.
Following a brief, very funny family history, Roz Chast gets to the heart of her tale, which is both specific and universal: an adult child having to care for elderly parents in decline. Chast reconnects with her parents after a (completely understandable) 10-year hiatus and discovers that they've become old, living in grimy clutter in the small Brooklyn apartment where she was raised. They had left, she tells us, "the sphere of TV-commercial old age — SPRY! TOTALLY INDEPENDENT!! JUST LIKE A NORMAL ADULT, BUT WITH SILVER HAIR!!!" — and become frail, isolated and confused.
Reluctantly, the child becomes the parent.
Considering the material, there's high potential here for one of those writers' workshop-style, self-centered, I'll-get-even tear-jerkers. Thanks to Chast's clear-eyed candidness, and to her exquisite drawing and narrative skills, this story of decline and death is, by turns, touching, absurdly hilarious and heartbreaking. With unblinking detachment, the artist Chast shows — despite our mass cultural denial — that there is no easy way to deal with advancing age (her parents live into their 90s) and its perils. She admits resentments over a childhood (photos of young Roz speak volumes) made rotten by an impossible, domineering mother (mitigated by her sensitive, compliant father); she confesses to blinding exasperation in dealing with myriad doctors, institutions, care-givers and insurance; and she reveals a conflicted adult child's response to a situation with only one sad outcome.
This isn't a happy story, as anyone who has witnessed their own version can attest, but in the hands of this gifted artist — one of the best cartoonist/writers anywhere — the story is made deeply personal, more so by Chast's superb drawings and hand-lettered text, which give it the feeling of a journal or diary. Ultimately, this is a daughter's story of sadness and loss, but of redemption, too. Like every great humorist, Chast is aware of life's underlying sadness, but she's also aware of humor's saving grace, which she demonstrates so wonderfully in this book. It's hard to imagine this story told any other way, simply because of who George and Elizabeth and Roz are. This book is a sublime tribute by a gifted daughter to her unique parents; we should all be so lucky to be immortalized so eloquently, lovingly and hilariously.
L.K. Hanson is a writer and artist in Minneapolis.