Roz Chast at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

by Jean Schiffman

The Contemporary Jewish Museum hosts the debut of cartoonist Roz Chast exhibition.

Cartoonist Roz Chast’s 2014 graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, ”accomplishes the near-impossible: It is deeply affecting and at the same time hilarious in its depiction of one woman’s effort to deal with the final years of her parents’ lives.

Dementia, physical decline, assorted eccentricities and ultimately death (theirs) and financial worries, caregiving concerns and the teeth-grinding frustrations of navigating family dynamics (hers) never seemed so funny.

Now that book—which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Autobiography, the Kirkus Prize for Non-Fiction and a Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities—is the centerpiece of “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” an exhibit that’s making
its West Coast debut at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM).

Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, it is divided into six sections:140-plus panels with dialogue balloons and added narrative text, all from the memoir itself; 50 of Chast’s cartoons and covers from The New Yorker (where more than 800 of her 1,200 published cartoons have appeared) and from such magazines as Scientific American, Mother Jones and more; her illustrations from seven children’s books, including some she herself wrote with whimsical titles like “What I HATE from A to Z”; two rugs; seven of her handmade mini-books; and 10 objects and images—personal “stuff,” some of it taken from her parents’ apartment after they’d moved, reluctantly, to an eldercare facility, including the fancy evening bag that Chast never saw her mother actually use, and a heavily annotated Merck Manual, “the book of my childhood,” says Chast.

There are also two videos, of an interview with Chast, and of Chast working on a mural, plus a walk-in re-creation of a cartoon, where you can sit in a Chast-ian living room
and imagine yourself to be one of her loopy characters.

Creating the memoir, Chast says, was a way of remembering her parents—“how they spoke and what they talked about”—because she does not have an especially good memory. She relied on three main sources.

One was a 12-page family history that her mother had written for her (Chast’s grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants; Chast was born and raised in Brooklyn). Mom was a domineering, larger-than-life personality who tends to appear in Chast’s dreams (“I still have a lot to work out about her,” Chast says ruefully).

Another memory-jogger was a gmail search (using keywords like “neurologist” or “my mother” or “Depends”) of correspondence Chast had written to good friends during the years-long ordeal of schlepping back and forth from her home in Connecticut, where she lived with her own family, to her childhood home in Brooklyn to care for her aging parents. Her father, once a high school teacher who could speak five languages, had dementia; her mother had assorted medical emergencies requiring frantic trips to the hospital.

And Chast mined her own artwork; she submits six to eight cartoons to The New Yorker every week, of which some are usually chosen for publication. Although she studied painting and printmaking before receiving a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design, Chast says that when an idea strikes her, it usually takes the form of words, not images. “A phrase or something will intrigue me or suggest something to me. Then I start sketching it out, and that will suggest some other words. So it goes back and forth between words and pictures.” She has said that she loves never having to choose between writing and art, and that the result is often greater than the sum of the two parts.

The cartoon Chast family are a bespectacled and endearingly goofy-looking trio: ferocious Mom (“I’m going to blow my TOP!” roars a gigantic, disembodied head, as tiny father and daughter cower below); sweet, nervous-Nellie Dad, who’d “never learned to drive, swim, ride a bicycle or change a light bulb”; and Roz herself, an only child: yellow-haired, anxious, guilty, exasperated, comical. 

Chast says her parents never laughed at her work but were enormously proud of her. The memoir, she guesses, with so many personal details, some of them downright embarrassing, would have been “somewhat upsetting”
for them. And she might have had to apologize for, as it turned out, having mixed up her two grandmothers—one washed clothes, the other cooked for people, but she got them backwards.

In an essay, CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin observes that Chast is “a serious writer of social satire, alongside all the great New Yorker humorists of the pre-war period like Thurber and Benchley.” He also compares her to acerbic wit Dorothy Parker, and to such take-no-prisoners comedians as Joan Rivers and Sarah Silverman, satirists all. For her part, Chast started out, as a kid, loving Charles Addams’ wonderfully macabre cartoons in The New Yorker—“I had my own sort of macabre sense of humor,” she says, “and they appealed to me so much and also featured children”—and now loves the entire genre, from Alison Bechdel to Art Spiegelman to the lesser-known Casanova Frankenstein, whose work she’d never seen before she served as guest editor of Best American Comics in 2016. “There’s more stuff in the genre that I like than that I don’t like,” she says.

“It was against my parents’ principles to talk about death,” Chast writes in the introduction to her book. “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” her mother often said; specifically, she wanted to avoid discussing how her daughter should handle her and her husband’s inevitable decline and demise. The memoir and this exhibit, heartbreaking and droll, reveal just how Chast did manage, warts and all.

Apr. 27 → Sept. 3

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission St., San Francisco 655-7800