Today’s Yellowed Pages comes from the way back time of 2014, as Ray Sonne explores Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, a work she recently rediscovered and feels especially connected to for its depiction of the indignities of aging and the struggles of families to communicate with and understand one another.
On my left middle finger, I wear a ring with the year 1915 wrought in 14k gold. I know that Rose, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, originally owned it, but don’t know what occasion led to her memorializing the time. The famous World’s Fairs where visitors brought back jewelry as souvenirs came decades later. Her husband, a Jewish-Polish immigrant, was old-fashioned and did not believe in engagement rings. When did she graduate high school? Beats me.
My grandfather, Rose’s son Martin, died in November. He was the first of my grandparents to go. He did not talk very much to anyone outside of my grandmother and his children until he knew the end was near. I did not know him well. He passed in a hospice after suffering the last of his many falls, prompting my grandmother to search through her jewelry box and find the ring. Between his death and the last few years where his dementia had formed and worsened, she never had the opportunity to ask him 1915’s significance.
I watched my grandfather deteriorate from afar, for the most part. My mother had the privilege as his daughter to see it all the wretchedness up close. As Roz Chast details in her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, one of the more horrifying experiences children experience is eventually watching their parents succumb.
Although separated by generations, Chast and I are much alike. We both come from Jewish families who immigrated from Eastern European countries in the late 19th/early 20th century and our parents (or grandparents) at one point call Brooklyn home. She describes herself as similar to her father, George, in their shared sensitivity and neuroticism, much like how I easily attribute my own to my father and his side of the family. We consider ourselves liberal, educated, unreligious, and feel a keen discomfort when confronted with the imbalance set into societal structures (such as the fact that Goodie, Chast’s mother’s aide later in her life, is a woman of color stuck in a job that no one else wants).
Chast’s experience as a former New Yorker cartoonist is reflected in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’s frequent brevity. She evokes most moments in singular tableaus with many uneven, nervous lines and a vehemency in either the colors or the characters’ facial expressions. One drawing later in the book, when Chast waits with exasperation and exhaustion at her mother’s half-life, defines Elizabeth Chast to the core as she faces off against the Grim Reaper.
Sharing space with the comics are Chast’s frantic expulsions of feeling, lettered in a style to imply her handwriting. Chast’s natural instinct in dealing with the chaos that becomes her life is to draw it. She draws her mother several times while she’s lying in her deathbed as if trying to imprint the shape of Elizabeth’s face into permanent memory. On the other hand, one gets the sense while reading these large chunks of text that Chast finds her usual tools of little use when it comes to confronting the ugly details of her parents’ deaths. At least in one case, for the sake of her dead mother’s dignity, she solely utilizes prose to describe her mother’s loss of bowel control when staying in her home. A perhaps ironic moment, since Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is far from about moments of dignity.
I wouldn’t say it’s entirely about closure either, although the memoir certainly takes the form of a basin, its cracks spinning out a detailed web of family damage. On the surface, the book is about Chast’s parents’ decline. She records it like a documentary, even at one point including actual pictures she took during the process of cleaning out their apartment of 50 years. Beside that, there’s the pain inflicted on Chast as Elizabeth and George raised her. Then, further down, is the legacy of the generation that came before Elizabeth and George, the relationship with their mothers as tenuous as Chast’s with Elizabeth.
Chast’s grasp on her heritage is strong—or at least stronger than my family’s. Chast reports that while her maternal grandmother “believed that people on TV could see her,” the floor of her paternal grandmother’s house was always covered with newspaper. These stories struck me most specifically because they’re, well, very Jewish. The emotional undercurrent of them carries the same form of panicked poverty and untreated mental illness that has reportedly plagued my father’s side of the family since the beginning of its existence (although I couldn’t tell you such specific stories about my ancestors because my father’s vast family is actually so sick they often don’t keep in touch, thus dispersing all family stories into the unknown). The bizarre actions within them explains the disposition of Chast’s father, George.
If Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? feels cathartic, it’s because it is for Chast. Readers work as her therapist, silent listeners as she lays out all steps that lead up to her creation. After learning about how her parents co-dependent dynamic didn’t take into account the entrance of a child or how her mother domineered the household, we feel that Chast has the right to her resentment. It makes her look all the braver that she tries to be the best caretaker possible to her parents despite that bitterness following her to adulthood. By the end of the memoir, we don’t get the typical sense of closure from the book, but we do understand the depth of Chast’s loss and and forgive her for her faults. In that way, we come a step closer to understanding and forgiving ourselves and our own flawed families.
A comics reader since the first Raimi-directed Spider-Man movie, Ray now works as a copywriter. When not writing or training in Krav Maga, she likes to expand her queer comics knowledge and talk with fellow nerds on Twitter @RaySonne.