Roz Chast’s graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) examines the dying process (my choice of words, not the author’s) of Chast’s extremely old parents, George and Elizabeth. George and Elizabeth were born a few days apart in 1912 and only a few blocks apart in Harlem.
Their parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but misery. George and Elizabeth’s first baby dies shortly after birth. Roz Chast is an only child born to a mother and father who were 42 (somewhat odd today, practically scandalous at the time). The author knows all the stories of the miserable Russian immigrants and the dead baby. She knows her parents consider themselves soul mates who cannot be apart. However, as George and Elizabeth creep into their 90s, Chast must consider their imminent deaths and what to do with their possessions and remains. However, George and Elizabeth will not talk about death!
The guilt and anxiety that fill Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? jumps off the pages. Based on her grandparents’ history, Chast’s parents feel their daughter Roz can never understand misery. It becomes clear why the author seems like a unbalanced person trying to be a good person and often freezing up—she doesn’t even drive due to anxiety.
Chast carefully details her parents’ personalities to show where her own neurosis come from. For example, her father’s thought process while using a toaster: “Now, let’s see…You put the bread into one of these two compartments…How do you know which one? Do you put the bread in first?? Or do you press this little level down first???” Chast continues, “He was bad at opening packages, like cookies or cereal. You could tell which ones he’d tried to open, because they were always torn some strange way, as if a raccoon had tried to get into them.”
Chast’s mother is completely different from her father. Elizabeth’s images are often scary, angry portrayals. Elizabeth thinks she’s right all the time, which leads to her anger. Chast notes that her mother wanted to be a concert pianist, but said, “It came too easily to me,” so she didn’t pursue the dream. This example shows the mother as egotistical and having unrealistic expectations. She also loves to yell, “I gave him a blast from the Chast!” and “I’m going to blow my top!!!” Based on these two parental personalities—nearly helpless and aggressive—the author becomes an indecisive, meek, terrified person, which she clearly details in her images and descriptions of her parents.
The most interesting detail about the author’s anxiety stems from the notion that her parents maybe never should have had her. George and Elizabeth were such a tight pair—soul mates—that having a child interrupted their duo. When Chast leaves for college, she feels her parents are happy that she isn’t around anymore. She notes, “I left for college when I was 16. I think we were all relieved.”
As her parents get older—late 80s, early 90s—Chast must think about her parents’ wishes for after they’ve passed. But they refuse to talk about death because they are “going to 100” (years that is). Something Chast points out that I remember from when my own great-grandmother passed is how much stuff a person leaves behind. After all of my grandma’s papers and other items were sorted through (the papers took forever because who knows what letter is important or unimportant and why), Later, I couldn’t look at my own things the same way. I began to get rid of old birthday cards and dried flowers and clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time and kitschy items I’d received for presents, things I clung to for fear of losing an item of sentimental value. When my great-grandma died, I realized these things did not equal love.
Chast makes the same point and even lists the sorts of things people keep in a massive list that effectively overwhelms the reader:
An ergonomic garlic press and throw pillows and those stupid sunflower dessert plates and seven travel alarm clocks and eight nail clippers and a colander and a flatiron and three old laptops and barbells and a set of FUCKING BOCCE BALLS, and patio furniture and an autoharp, for God’s sake, and your old flute from high school and a zillion books and towels and sheets and a wok you never used and a make your own stained glass kit you never opened, and martini glasses and a yoga mat and what is THIS??? A cuckoo clock????? And so many clothes and hats and shoes and then there’s all the KIDS‘ old stuff and don’t forget the furniture and four cameras and ice skates and whose tap shoes are these? and all the crap in the drawers and…”
When it becomes obvious that her parents cannot live alone, they are moved to an assisted living facility. I’ll leave the details for those who choose to read the book (and I recommend you do), but immediately after Chast talks about the death of her father, she includes a page just for a black and white picture of him dancing with daughter Roz Chast with the dates March 23, 1912 – October 17, 2007. It’s not often you see photos in graphic novels, but this page really gave George Chast a moment of silence and an opportunity to show he was a loving father. The author identified with her father (but didn’t understand or often like her mother).
Roz Chast includes a few varieties of images: there are the cartoon images, black and white photographs, sketches of her mother in her last days, and color photos of some items left in George and Elizabeth’s apartment that the author didn’t want to keep (the photos were enough).
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a moving memoir from the perspective of an aging daughter who details what it’s like to deal with parents who are so very elderly, and also so very stubborn. Chast is honest in her portrayals, including how she abandoned most of her parents’ belongings for the super of the apartment to deal with, and how using money to house her parents in assisted living was cutting into her inheritance, which did and did not concern her. This graphic novel also takes a realistic, deep look at anxiety and the effects parents have on their children.