09 Jan / Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? A Memoir by Roz Chast
George and Elizabeth Chast were born 10 days apart in 1912. They grew up two blocks from each other in East Harlem, and were in the same fifth grade class. “They never dated, much less anything else’d, anyone besides each other.” They married in 1938. Their only surviving child was born in 1954 and became the award-winning illustrator/cartoonist, Roz Chast. George died in 2007, Elizabeth in 2009. Almost five years later, in May 2014, their daughter immortalized their family story – including their inevitable passing – between 200+ pages filled with of honesty, frustration, fear, hope, denial, humor, heartbreak, and most importantly, love.
Chast’s relationship with her parents was always difficult. So proudly, exclusively co-dependent were George and Elizabeth on each other that even their daughter was made to feel like an outsider. They were creatures of habit who squirreled away far too much in the “Crazy Closet,” and somehow never opened up enough with their only child. Their insulated life à deux made Chast’s efforts that much more difficult when she was eventually confronted with the endless frustrations and challenges of dealing with the beginning of the inevitable end.
Former elementary school assistant principal Elizabeth was a critical perfectionist, prone to “terrifying volcano-like explosion[s] of rage.” George, who used to teach French and Spanish in high school, “chain-worried the way others might chain-smoke.” At 93, Elizabeth falls from a ladder, and the rest … well … becomes history. She never quite recovers, George flounders into dementia without his anchor, and Chast must take control of the “sheer lunacy” that seems to multiply daily. She runs the entire gamut of emotions and reactions from guilt to rage, from weeping to advocating, from mourning to celebrating. Somehow, somewhere, she’ll need to make peace with her parents, their exasperating needs, and eventually her own self.
I may be going waaaaay out on a limb, but I’m going to say that without Gene Luen Yang’s controversial, renegade nomination as a National Book Award finalist in 2006, Chast’s piercing graphic memoir most likely would not have made the NBA shortlist. Yang’s American Born Chinese broke the graphic barrier by becoming the first graphic title on the NBA finalist roster; his Boxers & Saints appeared among the 2013 finalists. With Yang leading, Chast joins NBA graphic history with her 2014 NBA nonfiction nod.
Of course, the NBA acknowledgement is just one of many, many deserving honors Chast has garnered for Pleasant. That the memoir clearly speaks to an entire generation of the so-called sandwich variety – providing care for both elderly parents and dependent children – ensures its resonating effect on an enormous audience. We middle-agers of every ethnic, religious, socioeconomic background understand only too well: as longevity grows, so do our sometimes impossible-to-fulfill responsibilities. Echoing such stuck-in-between situations, Pleasant is truly a stress-relieving, alternatively tears-and-guffaw-inducing, empathetic gift.