Roz Chast: pictures worth a thousand words

9781608198061_custom-035ffdc5e88431604aa7739c254c44f7148f65e0-s300-c85Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?  may well have been the best memoir published in 2014, and of course it is like no other. Roz Chast, prolific writer and artist, uses standard book form so inventively, so enticingly, filling the pages with so many visual delights that you’d follow her anywhere. Right into the Place [sic] where her ancient parents wound up, right into their bedroom, right into their illnesses and deaths. Painful as the material gets (psychologically, emotionally, physically), there’s no way you don’t see it through to the bitter end.

Chast’s drawing is unique, but what she does on the page as an artist isn’t completely new: other writer/artist/book designers have done similar things: combined panels with no-panels, used hand-drawn headlines, created pages that mix text with large images, and so on. Maira Kalman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, for example. The design vocabulary exists; the question is what the writer/artist does with it.

Like these other luminaries, Chast perfectly uses the pictorial as a medium for her own clear, intelligent, funny, insightful voice. Or maybe the right word is “support”: her visuals support her writing. Neither would be as strong without the other, but the evidence suggests that despite all those years of withdrawing into drawing, Chast is a writer first. She has something to say, and her drawings are the delivery system. IMG_1138Take a close look: there’s hardly a drawing that doesn’t use words in one way or another. That’s not an accident.

Since her book is a memoir, she’s also wrestling with all the issues that every memoirist must confront. Her parents are dead, so she seems unconflicted about revealing their quirks and weirdnesses, as well as the peculiarities of their marriage and their parenting. IMG_1136She’s straightforward about her own difficulties with her parents too.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s the almost total absence of her own husband and children. When it comes to Chast’s own marriage and parenting, the shades are almost all the way down. Her daughter is mentioned several times and pictured once or twice; the word “husband” comes up a few times.

This is a perennial problem for nonfiction writers trying to tell a family story: they are entitled to tell their personal stories, but what do they do about the other family members? How far can they go in revealing what their children and partners don’t want revealed?

I imagined this conversation between Chast and her husband:

“Sweetie, I’m going to write a book about my parents.”

“Great, Roz, just leave me out.”

“How can I leave you out? You were there.”

“Maybe, but leave me out. I don’t want to be in the book.”

The absence of her own husband and kids in this family story seems in an odd way to reiterate Chast’s childhood isolation. IMG_1140In other words, it appears as if her life with her difficult parents was still—in this tale of their last years—a closed circle. I have no idea if this is true or not; I only know what the writer/artist has put on her pages.

What I do know, though, is that even a memoir done right (and this one is done very right) will always have gaps. There’s no way to tell the entire story, and one component of writing artful memoir is how you use what you’re allowed to use.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Warwick’s, La Jolla, CA

Union Ave Books, Knoxville, TN

The Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA

Read 3 comments

  1. It didn’t occur to me to wonder about the absence of Chast’s husband and children, Thanks for bringing it up. You’re right about her re-creating the triangle of her childhood. What probably began as a limitation became an asset. The economy of expression – physical expression of reactions – allows for her use of few words. There’s something very pleasurable to me in putting them together.

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