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Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir


Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir

Part of the pleasure in reading a Roz Chast cartoon is, paradoxically, that there often isn't a great deal of pleasure in it. The topics --- anxiety, shame, fear of death, dysfunctional relationships --- are too familiar for schadenfreude, too close to home to operate under that old adage that comedy equals tragedy plus time. The humor instead comes from the reader's self-awareness of this shared baggage: To some extent, every human is unable to avoid anxiety, shame and the like. Isn't that funny? 

In Chast's hands, it certainly is --- a little funny haha, to be sure, but mostly, like the great bulk of the human experience she so powerfully dissects, funny weird. And CAN'T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?, Chast's memoir detailing her experience shepherding her parents through their slow but steady respective declines in their 90s, definitely reflects this trend --- it's about a quarter gutbusting, a quarter heartbreaking, and half chilling. And utterly masterful to boot.

"[A] quarter gutbusting, a quarter heartbreaking, and half chilling. And utterly masterful."

An example: "One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again," Chast writes in a chapter detailing her father's umpteenth exclamation of shock at learning that his beloved wife, Elizabeth, fell and was hospitalized weeks before. "On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything was hunky-dory." 

One day, most Americans of a certain privilege and socio-economic bracket will watch as their parents fall into the disrepair of age, and be saddled with caring for them during the long crawl into the night. We, in turn, will do the same to our children. But without the direct experience, it's hard to truly understand how grueling the process is for all parties --- and how revealing.

The book is written in Chast's perfected cartoonist's lilt and scrawl, full of character yet utterly readable. In the moments she allows herself to write in prose alone, the vulnerability inherent in making readers aware of these private and devastating events in her life by using her own hand --- no matter how honed and professionalized it is --- proves enormously affecting. But it's Chast's cartoons that make up the vast bulk of the pages. Each panel operates as a part of the book as a whole, yet Chast's skill and attention to detail, and her willingness to let each scene breathe, allow the strips to stand alone as well.

In the moments when Chast breaks from the pattern of cartoon and prose, the windows into her life open wider, and the scenes they contain strike hard and fast. She includes photos of her family in times past and of her parents' possessions while she was preparing to clean out their apartment after moving them to a nursing home. In the book's final pages, Chast presents her reader with a series of sketches she made of her mother in the weeks before her death.

It's enough to make any reader run for the phone, to call parents and grandparents, to confess a deep and endless love and appreciation --- in spite of it all.

Reviewed by John Maher on April 17, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir
by Roz Chast

  • Publication Date: September 13, 2016
  • Genres: Graphic Novel, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • ISBN-10: 1632861011
  • ISBN-13: 9781632861016