Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Book Review: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Like most people, I was pleasantly shocked when this graphic memoir was a finalist for the National Book Award when it came out, and that intrigued me. I already was interested as I've seen Ms. Chast's jittery cartoons in The New Yorker for many years, but a book specifically about both of her parents dying just wasn't one that I was dying to read initially.

I never really realized before, at least not consciously, that Ms. Chast's jittery style with all the extra lines and the shakiness was meant to convey anxiety. I think, now that I get that, that it's very effective. Although for many years, it bothered me. But heck, anxiety is designed to bother us.

We begin in 2001 after a bit of backstory, when Roz suddenly begins to worry about her parents, getting elderly and living alone together in Brooklyn, and she comes in from Connecticut on Sept, 10, 2001 (driving right past the World Trade Center in her cab, a luxury she doesn't usually take.) She finds her parents, while claiming everything is fine, are deteriorating. Her mother, a domineering former high school principal, has a mind like a vault but she has several physical ailments and those begin to increase, particularly after a bad fall and a refusal to do any physical therapy. Her father, a meek former foreign language teacher, is having memory lapses, although in their staid life with its routines (and with a wife who makes all the decisions and dominates all conversation), it isn't really obvious until he's taken out of his environment and routine, when they have to go to the hospital when his wife falls.

Things go downhill from there. Eventually, despite protests, Roz has to put them in a home, and she pays a small fortune for an excellent one (and excellent in price really just means not terrible in reality). But they really couldn't live alone any more and refused all help Roz suggested. They both hung in there until their early 90s, when first her father died, and two years later her mother. She keeps their ashes in her closet, which she finds comforting.

So it isn't a traditional memoir of course. There's not a ton of exposition as it's a graphic book. But also, for a graphic book, there's a lot of words! Sometimes entire pages are exposition with no drawings, although it's all hand-lettered. Her style of writing and drawing really conveys the pressure and fear and anxiety that is so heightened not only when one's parents are failing in various ways, but which is magnified for an only child, with no backup, no support (at least not from family who lived with them and understand them. Her husband and kids seem supportive but are minor characters.) There's no splitting the duties or even anyone to argue with about not splitting the duties. There's just her. Eventually she even worries that the situation is affecting her ability to do her work. You really feel her emotions: her dread and her extreme worry.

The book was surprisingly not sad, but it felt like a resolution. It actually made me feel like I understand better what to expect myself one day when my parents' health starts to fail. It made me think a bout my own future with no kids to take care of me. But it felt comforting, maybe because it was all over and done with. You didn't feel a wonder about what was going to happen or were they going to make it—you knew the end was coming and you knew that Roz would deal with it. She obviously really loved her parents but also they were hard in their own ways, and yet she did what she had to do. And then she wrote and drew this loving testament to them, to who they were, and to their last valiant battles.

I checked this book out of the library.

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