Ever since Roz Chast’s Reuben Award-winning memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant was added to the National Endowment of Arts’ Big Read Library in 2017, it’s slowly made the circuit of cities far and wide, from Midwest college campuses (Indiana University, Methodist University) to big cities up and down the coasts of the United States. The Orange County Public Library chose the memoir for its 2020 Big Read selection. Last night, Chast, the first woman to be inducted into the Harvey Award Hall of Fame, presented excerpts from the book at the Bower’s Museum in Santa Ana, California for its OCPL Big Read 2020 program to a mostly middle-aged crowd. And for those who rarely touched graphic novels, this story about the care of aging parents touched off something deeper and more intimate.
Chast’s opening cartoon laid out her neuroses in a nutshell. In that cartoon, a nine-year old Chast casually reads a variety of morbid titles scattered around the bed: The Big Book of Horrible Rare Diseases, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Scurvy, A Child’s Garden of Maladies, Lockjaw Monthly, and The Merck Manual.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, lockjaw was one of those diseases—I don’t know if the work enchant is the right word—but it certainly occupied a big part of my imagination.”
The Merck Manual, a gift from Chast’s aunt to her mother, summed up Chast’s childhood. Her assistant principal mother also happened to be the armchair doctor who clipped out articles of interest in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
“I knew what symptoms and signs were,” related Chast. “And I knew that leprosy was rare in Brooklyn. But I also knew that rationally, however, very rare meant not impossible. Any time my hands fell asleep, which I called fizzy hands, if you think about how your hands feel, that would be a symptom of leprosy.”
When asked where she gets her ideas, Chast replied she doesn’t know. But in “When Moms Dance,” a cartoon in which a teenager looks up grudgingly as her mother performs a silly dance, life imitates art.
“There’s nothing more revolting in the eyes of a teenager than the adult human body,” explained Chast. “I kind of understand that. But if you really want to build that lily pad of disgust…I wanted to see if she [my daughter] paid attention and so I went into the living room and did this little dance. She looked up and said, ‘Mom, you’re hurting me.’”
During the presentation, Chast mostly read from the pages of her memoir, but her sardonic commentary gave attendees plenty of material to cackle and laugh out loud about. And the brief question and answer period that followed revealed the depths to which Chast’s story affected the relationships between mothers and daughters, Jewish and non-Jewish families. On this evening of celebration and laughter at the OCPL Big Read 2020, attendees took comfort that the Poet Laureate of Urban Neurosis shared their pain.