In the gallery of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, people looking at the art on the wall are laughing. Not just polite chuckles, but full-throated guffaws. That’s because Roz Chast’s drawings hang on that wall, and that’s what you do when you see one of her recognizable cartoons—like the one showing obsessive compulsive Santa making a list, checking it twice—then writing it again because the margins are crooked. Or the dumbest pacts with the devil ever that includes selling one’s soul for tickets to a Bread concert or some hapless person who traded her soul in to be president of the Beanie Baby Fan Club (“But it made so much sense at the time!” she exclaims).
In the exhibit, Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs, Chast’s cartoons for The New Yorker and other magazines are on display along with ones from her books, some personal mementos (and a couch—Chast does love to draw couches), and panels from Chast’s graphic memoir about her elderly parents’ final years, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? That book won many awards, including the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Autobiography, and was named by The New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 Best Books of 2014. The book documents her parents’ decline in ways big and small, from the grime that began to cover everything in their apartment, to her father’s obsession with his bankbooks, which grows worse throughout the day (“sunsetting” it’s called in nursing homes), to her mother’s more and more frequent falls.
Chast didn’t worry about taking on a subject most people want to avoid—death—let alone the trauma, expense, and heartbreak of dealing with one’s parents’ failing physical and mental health.
“I never felt like it was a risk,” she said in an interview at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, “Washing windows on one of those thingies—that’s a risk. Those are the things that really scare me. This is what I do.”
It certainly is. Chast has drawn around 1,200 cartoons in the past four decades. She has other books for adults and children, including What I Hate: From A to Z and Too Busy Marco. This one, she says, was different.
“It was very personal,” she said. “I wanted to do it because I didn’t want to forget what it was like to go through it and also what my parents were like. So I really wrote it for that.”
Chast knew how to start the book—with a sudden desire to leave her house in Connecticut to visit her parents in Brooklyn, a place she didn’t and doesn’t like. She remembers the date because it was September 9, 2001, and she recalls seeing the World Trade Center towers from the window of the taxi she took from the train station. She also knew how it would end—with her mother’s death at 97 in 2009 (her father died in 2007). But she wasn’t sure how to organize it otherwise—until her therapist suggested chapters. That made all the difference.
“I had never written a long form piece, and I had forgotten about chapters,” she said. “Once he said that, things started to fall into place.”
Curated and first shown at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the show went on to the Museum of the City of New York and then to San Francisco, where it will be up through September 3. Renny Pritikin, chief curator at the museum, is delighted to display Chast’s work. A lover of both pop and fine art, he says this is exactly the sort of show he wants to bring to the museum.
“There’s a wonderful synthesis of language and pictures,” he said. “Humor is about concision of language, and a good joke tells the truth unexpectedly. She’s really, really good at that, and it’s important women are taking their place in the tradition of humor and cartooning. I think she’s in that lineage of great New Yorker humorists like Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman.”
Chast, 62, probably wasn’t thinking of being part of a pantheon when she was a kid in Brooklyn, although she did want to escape to Manhattan. She always drew, she says, because she was an only child and because it was an apartment-friendly activity. “You couldn’t bounce a ball on the wall,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be exploring any woods or streams or anything.”
Her parents were both educators—her mother was an assistant principal and her father taught high school French and Spanish. In the summers, they often went to Cornell for concerts and lectures with their teacher friends, and they would leave Chast in the library in Ithaca, which contained no kids’ books. But they did have a cartoon section. Chast particularly loved the work of Charles Addams, who she got to meet years later when she began being published at The New Yorker.
Chast studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, but after graduation she started drawing cartoons again and sending them out to magazines. She made her first sale to Christopher Street, a gay literary magazine that paid her $10, “crap pay” even in 1977, she said. She sold cartoons to other magazines, including the Village Voice—where it was her ambition to work, thinking it fit with her style. But then she decided to submit a cartoon to The New Yorker in 1978. She says she was flabbergasted when they bought it. She’s been drawing for them ever since.
The book about her parents has been wildly successful, and Chast gets letters from people who relate to her experience of caring for parents while still working and taking care of kids, of cleaning out her parent’s things (Chast found the giveaways her parents had gotten for opening all those accounts that the bankbooks were for—toasters, clocks and blenders—all unopened), and of hiring caretakers and worrying about money.
She hears from lots of people with backgrounds nothing like hers. She thinks some of it has to do with her parents’ generation.
“A lot of it is the Depression, and World War II. There were so many things that defined my parents’ generation other than the fact they were Jewish and from Brooklyn,” she said. “Certainly the scrimping and the saving—that cuts across all kinds of background. I’ve heard from rural Methodists, like, ‘Oh God, my dad with the bankbooks’—that’s just part of their world.”
With the book, Chast wanted to pay tribute to her mother, Elizabeth, who played the piano and wrote poetry, and her father, George, who was sensitive and curious about language.
“I hope I managed to convey I really did love them,” she said about the book. “They were unique and amazing, and I’m glad they were my parents.”