Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleasant?

By – May 1, 2014

The intro­duc­tion to Roz Chast’s mem­oir, Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleas­ant, pic­tures an eight-pan­el, full-col­or com­ic of an aging cou­ple sit­ting on the sofa beside their daugh­ter. As the daugh­ter pre­car­i­ous­ly and awk­ward­ly attempts to involve her par­ents in a talk about things” (“What kind of things?” they ask; Plans,” she responds, adding, I have no idea what you guys want!”), the cou­ple throws their hands in the air, looks blankly at her, shrugs, and even laughs. Am I the only sane per­son here???” she final­ly asks, exasperated.

This exas­per­a­tion is a per­sis­tent theme in Chast’s mem­oir, which recounts her rela­tion­ship with her par­ents, and espe­cial­ly the last years of their lives, in excru­ci­at­ing­ly hon­est detail. An only child, Chast finds her­self bear­ing the brunt of her par­ents’ tran­si­tion from the sphere of TV com­mer­cial old age” to the part of old age that was scari­er, hard­er to talk about, and not a part of this cul­ture.” Her par­ents’ adamant refusal to deal with declin­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal health becomes an added bur­den, and she finds her­self expe­ri­enc­ing con­flict­ing emo­tions as she com­mutes from Con­necti­cut to their increas­ing­ly neglect­ed and dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate Brook­lyn apart­ment. Chast even­tu­al­ly tran­si­tions the two into assist­ed liv­ing facil­i­ties near her home, recount­ing the painful, humil­i­at­ing, long-last­ing, com­pli­cat­ed, and hideous­ly expen­sive” tri­als that account for what she calls the end.”

Chast is best known for decep­tive­ly buoy­ant New York­er car­toons that pic­ture char­ac­ters and objects in every­day set­tings, but which are mired in a sharp sen­si­bil­i­ty often look­ing to uncov­er those hard­er to talk about” spheres. In this mem­oir she incor­po­rates her famil­iar­ly whim­si­cal humor along­side prose-heavy pages detail­ing the grief and guilt of fac­ing what can become, for many, one of life’s most chal­leng­ing and soli­tary ordeals. To be able to recount the sto­ry of your par­ents’ deaths might seem, to some, an over­whelm­ing feat not worth the pain incurred. But, as read­ers, wit­ness­ing some­one grap­ple with what feels impos­si­ble to dis­cuss is, per­haps, the first step towards learn­ing how to talk about things.” And for that, this read­er is deeply grateful.

Tah­neer Oks­man is a writer, teacher, and schol­ar. She is the author of How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jew­ish Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty in Con­tem­po­rary Graph­ic Mem­oirs (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016), and the co-edi­tor of The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Your­self (Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2019), which won the 2020 Comics Stud­ies Soci­ety (CSS) Prize for Best Edit­ed Col­lec­tion. She is also co-edi­tor of a mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary Spe­cial Issue of Sho­far: an Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Jour­nal of Jew­ish Stud­ies, titled What’s Jew­ish About Death?” (March 2021). For more of her writ­ing, you can vis­it tah­neeroks​man​.com

Discussion Questions

  • Roz Chast is very hon­est about her rela­tion­ship with her par­ents and her thoughts and feel­ings as they aged and grew sick­er. Did you find her hon­esty to be an asset to the book or did it make it uncom­fort­able to read? Were there times when you felt more or less sym­pa­thet­ic toward her or iden­ti­fied with her more or less?

  • Did you appre­ci­ate the visu­al aspects of this book? Do you think the for­mat of a graph­ic nov­el is more or less effec­tive for a mem­oir than for a fic­tion­al account? How is it dif­fer­ent than a mem­oir writ­ten in prose?

  • The expe­ri­ence that Chast writes about, car­ing for aging par­ents, is one that many have expe­ri­enced. Were there sim­i­lar­i­ties to your own fam­i­ly sto­ry? Did that make it eas­i­er to con­nect to the fam­i­ly or hard­er? Was there any­thing that sur­prised you in Chast’s sto­ry? Do you think that hav­ing per­son­al expe­ri­ences with the top­ic would make you enjoy the book more or less?

  • In the New York Times’ review of the book, Alex Wich­tel writes, No one has per­fect par­ents and no one can write a per­fect book about her rela­tion­ship to them. But Chast has come close.” Do you agree?

  • One of the blurbs for the book, by author David Small, says, Read­ing Roz Chast has always had the qual­i­ty of eaves­drop­ping on a per­son­’s pri­vate mut­ter­ings to her­self.” Did read­ing this book feel like eaves­drop­ping to you? Does that make it eas­i­er to empathize with Chast as a read­er or did it make you feel like a voyeur?

  • What do you think of Chast’s por­tray­al of her par­ents? Did you find either of them to be lik­able, admirable, or sym­pa­thet­ic? Does that mat­ter? As she illus­trates their final years, do you feel like she is hon­or­ing their memories?

  • Do you think Chast’s par­ents were por­trayed with dig­ni­ty? Why or why not? If not, is there a way to tell the real sto­ry of this peri­od of their lives while main­tain­ing their dignity?

  • There were sev­er­al times where Chast includes non-car­toon draw­ings – fam­i­ly pho­tographs, sketch­es, her moth­er’s poems, etc. What effect did these have for you? Were they dis­rup­tive or did they add to the per­son­al nar­ra­tive and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment? What effect did the sketch­es of Chast’s moth­er at the end of the book have on you? Did they change the tone of the book for you or alter your over­all take­away as a reader?

  • What role does humor play in this book?

  • Which aspects or scenes were most poignant?

  • Do you think there is an over­all mes­sage to this book or is it no more than a recount­ing of a per­son­al story?