Humanity’s oldest dream turns out to be Roz Chast’s worst nightmare.
“Imagine some horrible dystopian future, some 50 years from now, where people just stop dying,” she says, sitting in her living room in quaint, rural Connecticut, surrounded by pastel-colored walls, books and colorful knickknacks. “They’re 98, they’re 102, they’re 107, they’re 112” — the voice of the 59-year-old staff cartoonist for the New Yorker grows louder with every number — “and they get weaker and more decrepit and their bones are breaking and they’re non compos mentis, and yet they’re still alive.” She considers the thought a bit longer: “And it costs a fortune to keep them alive. It’s like, well, we can’t put a pillow over their head, we can’t starve them.” After a short pause, she adds: “It’s kind of funny, I have to admit, there’s an aspect to it that it could be a really good black comedy.” Her voice changes again, this time imitating a movie announcer: “‘The thing that wouldn’t die’ — except the thing is us.”
When Chast, who has sleek blond hair, round, horn-rimmed glasses, and a sly smile, talks about this scenario, she is speaking from experience. Her parents George and Elizabeth Chast died in 2007 and 2009, at the ages of 95 and 97, respectively. In her newly published graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” she reflects on what she calls “the journey we took into the last part of their life,” i.e. her parents’ process of aging and dying and their relationship to their only child. It is witty, moving and honest, and critically questions how our society deals with death while lovingly and respectfully memorializing Chast’s parents.
In March, the New Yorker’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff published his cartoon-filled autobiography “How About Never — Is Never Good For You?” which focuses on the psychology of humor and the inner workings of the prestigious magazine’s cartoon department. The two books share the same loose format of their work — a combination of cartoons, photographs and pages of text, in Chast’s case handwritten — and both engage with their authors’ Jewish heritage. Both books make you nod in agreement, then giggle. Chast’s work also makes you cry.
“Nobody told me about this,” is a sentence Chast says several times while we talk. It comes up when she explains how she realized that death can be a long, drawn-out process. In her book, there is a cartoon about Old Mrs. McGillicuddy, which depicts what Chast thought death was like. “One day, old Mrs. McGillicuddy, she was very, very old and she didn’t feel very well, so she took to her bed,” Chast says, again inflecting her voice to describe the cartoon. “And the second panel is, ‘she was in bed, getting weaker and weaker for about four weeks.’ And the last panel is, ‘and then she developed something called a death rattle, and then she died. The end.’”