I Must Be Dreaming

  • Review
By – October 23, 2023

Roz Chast is con­sid­ered one of the most com­i­cal­ly inge­nious visu­al inter­preters of mod­ern life. The author of the acclaimed graph­ic mem­oir Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleas­ant?, she is also famed for the New York­er car­toons she has cre­at­ed over the past four decades. 

Who among the many fans of Chast’s hys­ter­i­cal­ly edgy art have not won­dered at some point about her dreams? After all, the leg­endary cartoonist’s por­tray­als of Amer­i­can urban life so often seem to spin off into a whim­si­cal or even fever­ish­ly sur­re­al ver­sion of real­i­ty. Demon­strat­ing her capac­i­ty for seri­ous intro­spec­tion, and weav­ing togeth­er car­toons, sketch­es, and pho­tos, this mem­oir com­bines her fine­ly tuned sense of absur­di­ty with the chal­lenges of cop­ing with her elder­ly par­ents in their final years. She reflects on her guilty respons­es to their bewil­der­ment, rage, demen­tia, and hos­pi­tal­iza­tions. Giv­en the amount of sway they held over much of her life, Chast’s late par­ents some­times reap­pear in her dreams.

Chast first chron­i­cled the frag­ments and vignettes that are depict­ed in this book in dream jour­nals she kept as a teenag­er. She returned to the prac­tice of dream-jour­nal­ing only much lat­er in life, after her chil­dren had grown and left home. Per­haps the chief delight of Chast’s mem­oir is that while many expe­ri­ence this kind of exot­ic dream life, few of us would be able to ren­der it so vivid­ly on the page. Though Chast is not nec­es­sar­i­ly aim­ing for hilar­i­ty, quite a few of her deliri­ous car­toons are sure to make the read­er laugh out loud. The sub­jects she explores range wide­ly, from night­mares about the pro­duce sec­tion of gro­cery stores to mon­strous babies; and a pecu­liar num­ber of her most unset­tling dreams con­cern den­tistry, of all things. She even encoun­ters some celebri­ties while she sleeps. (Per­haps the only com­mon denom­i­na­tor between Chast and just about every­one else is that she, too, has had a Jon Hamm dream). 

Yet even Chast’s most mun­dane dreams are mem­o­rable. Divid­ed into four­teen sec­tions, I Must Be Dream­ing also includes the graph­ic essay A Brief Tour Through Dream-The­o­ry Land.” In this spec­u­la­tive and con­cise essay, she exam­ines the mus­ings of philoso­phers, mys­tics, psy­cho­an­a­lysts, and oth­er con­trib­u­tors to dream the­o­ry over mil­len­nia, from the ancient Egyp­tians and Greeks, to Kab­bal­ists, to Freud, Jung, and var­i­ous lit­tle-known thinkers. Intrigu­ing­ly, she relates that for Kab­bal­ists, the dream state is a sort of refresh­er or re-ener­giz­er for the soul.” Else­where she sug­gests how we might bet­ter rec­ol­lect our own dreams. 

Chast is espe­cial­ly drawn to a wise obser­va­tion by psy­chi­a­trist Har­ry A. Wilmer, one that serves as the book’s epi­graph: The uncon­scious has a rare sense of humor. It makes delight­ful, inge­nious puns, jokes, and com­ic impro­vi­sa­tions. We are all cre­ative genius­es in our sleep.” For­tu­nate­ly for us, Chast also proves her­self to be a genius in these art­ful­ly weird and won­der­ful pages. The old adage that there is noth­ing more bor­ing than oth­er people’s dreams doesn’t hold remote­ly true when it comes to Chast’s ren­der­ing of her uproar­i­ous uncon­scious. Ded­i­cat­ed to the Dream Dis­trict of our brains, that weird and uncol­o­nized area where any­thing can hap­pen, from the sub­lime to the mun­dane to the ridicu­lous to the off-the-charts bats,” I Must Be Dream­ing bears exu­ber­ant wit­ness to it all.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

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