Roz Chast is a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a memoir about caring for her parents in their final years. In both her illustrations and her writing, Chast demonstrates great talent for finding telling details – the bits of gesture and paraphernalia that reveal mountains about character and situation. Like the “cheese-tainer,” a plastic Tupperware modified with masking tape that her parents kept in the fridge for decades. Traditionally heirlooms are the most ornate, most expensive items, but Chast lovingly archives the everyday items that made her parents who they were. Or the illustrations for her mother’s temper tantrums, lovingly called “blasts from Chast”, which are similarly telling and succinct.
While this is a book of humour, it is a utilitarian memoir as well, since Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? sparks the very conversation Chast and her parents failed to have – how do you want to be cared for when you’re old, and how do you want to die? Through her very personal, specific story, readers are forced to consider how they’d handle a whole host of awkward situations. Chast sees that her parents’ house, which had always been regularly dusted, is now covered in a layer of grime. But how should a child help their parents in this situation, where cleaning might be taken as judgement, not-cleaning taken as uncaring, and hiring help taken as a waste of money? When her mother is sick, but refuses to go to the hospital, what ought a loving daughter do? Respect her wishes, and let her get sicker, or disrespect her independence to get her the help she needs? When her father’s dementia causes him to repeatedly forget that her mother is in hospital, should she re-traumatize him every time he asks, or should she lie and say her mother’s at the store? These conversations are always uncomfortable, but by discussing this book, rather than your own complicated scenarios, the pressure is off and conversation can flow.
My favourite insight was about the stuff that fills our homes. Chast argues that consumerist advertising is primarily directed at young people not because they’re attractive, not because they’ve got the most dispensable income, but because they have not yet faced the horror of cleaning out a parent’s house. Chast says once you’ve done this, you’ll look at every item you own with new, scornful eyes. I try to live fairly minimalist, but it was still shocking to look at my possessions through the eyes of whoever might be sorting through them once I’m dead. And then, too, to wonder what someone might find sentimental – for Chast, the tote bag her father carried everywhere turned out to be most precious. It now holds his ashes.
So it is a paradoxical piece of art – an easy-read that asks tough questions, a comedy about tragedy, a pleasant piece on an unpleasant topic. But isn’t that what art is supposed to be?