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.