Book Review: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2014)


roz chast

by Alan F. Zundel

With her characteristic bare-all honesty and true to life humor, cartoonist Roz Chast pulls the curtain on a middle-age rite of passage: the aging and death of one’s parents.

Travelling through middle age is a lot like being a cow herded toward the slaughterhouse. You’re being shoved forward, you can’t turn back, and you are becoming increasingly ill-at-ease with the disturbing sounds and smells wafting back from whatever is beyond those doors ahead of you.

What is ahead of you, if you don’t die first, is old age. And then death. And it is usually not pretty.

I first got a glimpse of what was coming when I was forty and my grandmother was put in a nursing home. For several decades she seemed like she never changed, always looking and sounding exactly the same as when I was a little kid. But taken from her home environment she suddenly looked shrunken and grey-skinned.

I saw her with her shoes and socks off, and was shocked by her misshapen feet: all bunions, hammer-toed, and swollen, as though she had a feet transplant from the elephant man. She sat around and stared into the distance, barely communicating. “Do you want anything, Grandma?” I asked. “I want to go home,” is all she would say.

But that was my grandmother, still a distance from me in age. Closer to home was several years later when changes in my parents became obvious. My mother got progressively befuddled by dementia. She gained weight and babbled on about ludicrous fictional tales of her childhood. My father had trouble driving safely. He had a stroke and talked slowly. He veered between trying to keep control of their lives and looking scared and confused like a child.

And then, one at a time but within a few years of each other, they died. I was not there for all of this, as they lived in Michigan and I am on the West Coast, but my siblings filled me in on many of the unpleasant details of the whole process. And once they were gone it hit me: that generation is disappearing, yours is next in line.

Roz Chast captures the heart and soul of this experience by relating her own reactions and observations as her parents reached old age and died. Neither a comic book nor a graphic novel, her book is more of a memoir in cartoon form. It somehow is both more intimate and easier to handle that way.

It’s all there. The initial avoidance of the elephant in the room. The strange way their annoying quirks also become poignant and even endearing. The shift into dependency. The persistent physical ailments. The leave-taking of their home and familiar lives. And the shock that comes not from their death, but from the absence of a piece of yourself when they are gone.

And yet she manages to find humor in this, a gentle humor which kept me smiling and often had me laughing out loud. At one point Chast recounts several of the bizarre stories her mother tells her near the end, when fantasy and reality become blurred.

“There was a break-in at the Place!” her mother says. (The Place is her assisted living home.) “I shot the intruder with my BB gun. I gave him an ass full of buckshot!” Then she adds: “I’d like to stand him on a stage, pull down his pants, and take out the pellets one by one in front of everybody!”

But it’s hard to convey the quality of her cartoons in prose, better to see a sample for yourself. You can see several pages from her book online on the New Yorker website.

Chast won the Heinz Award for “exceptional Americans” with this book. It also won the Kirkus Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, an Eisner Award, and was the first graphic novel to become a finalist for the nonfiction National Book Award.

If you are nearing, going through, or have experienced the aging and death of your parents, this book makes a lovely friend, the kind who knows how to keep you grounded when your world is shifting in a slow-motion earthquake.

And as someone who has crossed the far reaches of middle-age and arrived at the shores of seniorville, I also recommend it for my now-adult children and those of their generation. You may not feel ready for this, but you guys are next in line.

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