Monday, September 7, 2015

Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT: A Memoir by Roz Chast 2014

"'But the concept of . . .being happy’ — that was for modern people or movie stars. I.e., degenerates' Chast’s mother exclaims: 'Elizabeth Taylor! Seven husbands. Oy gevalt.'" Quotes from Chast's Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT? in a review by Alex Witchel in the New York Times 4/30/2014

Roz Chast, mostly known for her frequent cartoons in the New Yorker magazine, has written an award-winning graphic memoir whose subject is her aging parents. This memoir is a portrait of a family that looks back to Jewish immigration at the turn of the twentieth century and follows these immigrants' descendants as they move from tenements to suburbs, pursuing the American Dream.

Both parents were born in 1912 to Russian Jewish immigrants and met when they were children in East Harlem. They settled in an apartment off of Ocean Parkway in an area Chast describes as not at all contemporary trendy Brooklyn, but rather “deep” Brooklyn where they raised Roz, their only child.

A host of circumstances made Roz’s upbringing difficult: her parents were older when she was born, she was an only child. There had been an earlier pregnancy but the baby was born prematurely and died.  Influencing the way her parents lived was their own backgrounds: they talked about how their parents had come with “nothing” and that growing up they had “nothing.” They had lived through the Depression and World War II. And both her parents lost relatives in the Holocaust.

In the complicated mixture of circumstance, culture and personality they behaved like many in their generation. They saved their money in bank accounts and were secretive about it, they held onto possessions far past their usefulness, they recited all kinds of bromides about health and wealth, and they (her father especially) were afraid of the world and its potential everyday calamities. They lived like there was a disaster waiting around the corner. To illustrate this propensity, and to highlight her own sense of its absurdity, Chast draws what she calls a Wheel of Doom with concentric circles that detail the everyday possible hazards of life from “choking due to laughter at a meal” to “gangrene – too tight wrist watch.”

What we have here is a story of America told through the tale of one family, exaggerated because it’s viewed through the lens of the comic cartoon. Graphic memoirs don’t lend themselves to wordy analysis on the part of the author, but rather to presentation. We get a glimpse of the immigrant generation. She says that although her mother’s father had been an engineer in Russia, here in America his English held him back and he could barely make a living. His wife worked as a presser in the garment district and cleaned people’s houses. The next generation, Roz Chast’s parents, climbed up the ladder of success. They were college graduates and became school teachers, and they raised their daughter in a rented apartment in Brooklyn. As far as they were concerned, they had made it. But their daughter knew that there was a world outside of Brooklyn. Eventually she moved to Connecticut with her own growing family so they could have more trees and grass, more space, and better schools.

This background sets up the bulk of the memoir which deals with her parents’ inevitable aging – their desire to be independent, the author’s guilt and worry about their still living in their apartment in Brooklyn into their early 90’s, and the author’s commitment to secure their future.

Is this a particularly Jewish story? It’s an interesting question. They certainly were not religiously observant. However there is a case to be made that to some extent they enacted a culturally Jewish legacy. They were educated and ambitious for their daughter. Chast states that her father was a high school language teacher of French and Spanish and could speak Yiddish, and there’s an occasional use of a Yiddish phrase. At one point she quotes her mother as having used the phrase “Oy Gevalt” (woe is me), a phrase that points back to their inheritance: the anxiety and anguish based on the lives of earlier generations. Roz Chast, born in 1954, can’t identify with the Jewish immigrant source of their anxiety. She found her parents clinging to their old thought patterns and behavior exasperating. But at the same time she knew they couldn’t help themselves – it was part of who they were - and she did the best she could to make their final years safe and endurable.

To watch a Youtube video of Roz Chast reading from Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, click here.
To read an entry from the Jewish Virtual Library on the Jewish American family, click here.

George and Elizabeth Chast
      Roz Chast - daughter of George and Elizabeth; author

East Harlem, NY
Brooklyn, NY