Cartoonist likes having her parents in the closet

By Sarah Lyall / New York Times News Service

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — By way of introducing her parents, Roz Chast opened her closet door and rummaged through some stuff on the floor. This is where she keeps them, amid miscellaneous boxes and general bedroom marginalia: her mother’s ashes in a maroon velvet pouch; her father’s in the Channel 13 tote bag he took with him everywhere.

“I like having my parents in my closet,” is how she explains it in her new graphic novel, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”, which chronicles the couple’s long, precipitous decline, starting from when her mother fell off a stepladder in 2005 to the time she died, in 2009 (Chast’s father died in the middle of all that). “I think it makes a nice home for them.”

It is almost shocking to meet Chast, whose cartoons so often feature a chronically frazzled woman of her own general appearance, and find no visible rays of anxiety emanating from her head. Other than not being an obvious bundle of neuroses, she is very much the way you might expect: wry, ruminative, able to take the smallest thing and find what is funny about it.

“This is my amusing can collection,” she said on a recent afternoon in her house here, showing off a shelf devoted to exotic cans with unusual or potentially un-tasty contents, like squid. One, called “The Full Monty,” comes from the United Kingdom and purports to be an entire breakfast — beans, sausages, tomatoes, potatoes and onions — all glopped together in a single container. “My only rule is that it has to have been purchased in a supermarket,” she said of the cans.

Chast’s house is neat, in a controlled-chaos sort of way, and full of interesting flourishes. The walls are a riot of art and signed cartoons from her many New Yorker cartoonist friends; the kitchen table is covered in proofs of her latest children’s book. Although Chast, 59, has been contributing to The New Yorker for more than 30 years, a prominent feature of her office is a large filing cabinet devoted to cartoons that did not make it into the magazine — shockingly, some 90 percent of what she submits, she said.

Her great gift is her ability to filter normal life through the manic salad spinner that is her mind, to produce work that is both sui generis and universal.

And so, depending on where you yourself are on the parental-decline timeline, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” can be read as primer or cautionary tale, horror movie or documentary. It is also very, very, very funny, in a way that a straight-out memoir about the death of one’s elderly parents probably would not be. At one point, she describes the long theater-of-the-absurd arguments she had with her increasingly befuddled mother. “This is a spoon,” Chast says. “No, it’s not. It’s a spoon,” her mother replies. Chast titled that page “The Apartment of Mirth.”

‘Something really funny’

Every story of an adult child and dying parents is the same, and yet each is different. Chast was an only child, and so when her parents became helpless, everything fell to her.

She was also forced to confront scary unfinished business from her lonely childhood, characterized, she said, by her mother’s yelling and criticism. “I learned to keep my head down,” she writes, “and my thoughts to myself.” She is a mental-note-taker, and in the frame where she is keeping her head down, she drew a little book titled “The Big Book of What I Really Think.”

“You know, it’s funny,” she said, and then paused. “Childhood — that was not my favorite time in my life.”

What saved her was herself: her imagination and her creativity. Forbidden to read comics and other supposedly unsavory material, she read them anyway, things like Zap and Mad Magazine. But it was the stodgy children’s magazine Highlights that helped her become a cartoonist.

The magazine had a page called “Our Own,” featuring submissions from readers, and Chast was determined to be included. Based on visual evidence — pretty much all the girls’ drawings were of horses, she said — she decided that she, too, had to submit a horse.

Despite the obvious impediments (“I didn’t like horses. I wasn’t interested in horses.”), she gritted her teeth, forcing herself to watch multiple episodes of a horse-centric television program, “Fury,” for equine inspiration. She did not like the program but soon filled a sketchbook with horse drawings.

“And then I looked at them when the sketchbook was done, and they were so bad,” she said. “But they were really funny. They didn’t look like horses at all. They looked like big, weird dogs.”

They made her laugh, spontaneously, to herself. And that was that. “I didn’t think then, like, ‘Aha — these are really bad, but they’re really funny, so I should be a cartoonist,’” she said. “It was more like: ‘There’s something really funny about this. I’m not trying to draw them funny, but they’re coming out funny.’”

A cartoonist’s life

She lost herself in her art, taking extra classes and drawing all the time, and left home for college when she was 16, starting in upstate New York and ending at the Rhode Island School of Design. She sold her first cartoon to The New Yorker (“Little Things,” a drawing of imaginary inconsequential objects with imaginary humorous names) in 1978 and has all along supplemented her cartoon income with books and artwork.

Surely The New Yorker values her so much that it provides her with a generous regular salary? Well, no; there appears to be no such thing as a staff cartoonist. “In my dreams, I live on that planet,” she said. “Unless you live in an apartment above, like, a really depressing store in Schenectady or something — very small, with no heat, and there’s a lot of rats — maybe then you can afford to not do anything else.”

Hers is a two-New Yorker family; Chast’s husband is humor writer Bill Franzen, 62. They have lived in this quiet town just over the Connecticut border since she was pregnant with their second child, Nina, now 23. (The older one, Ian, is 26.) The house is cozy, friendly and spacious, but it is not New York City, and it has its drawbacks.

“I don’t like going into the basement,” she said. “I’m always afraid that something’s going to blow up.”

There is also the issue of driving, which Chast also does not like. She once had a one-car accident in which, trying to maneuver the car without dislodging some gelatin-based snacks she was transporting to her daughter’s school, she veered off the road. (Everyone, except the snacks, was fine.) And once, just once, she attempted to drive to the city.

A beginning and an end

She has a network of artist friends and a front lawn that Franzen enjoys decorating in seasonal themes: for Easter, he put up a little scene featuring a bunch of giant eggs and a large bunny atop some kind of wagon.

And the suburbs lend themselves to productivity, she said: “As far as getting work done, there’s really not a lot to do out here.”

The Connecticut quiet was surely a help to Chast in putting together her book, as ambitious, raw and personal as anything she has produced. Composed mostly of cartoons but peppered with photographs and chunks of prose, it ricochets back and forth chronologically and in the end is as much a portrait of a family as it is a story about two people’s deaths.

It took Chast a couple of years to work out what to include and how to structure it, but its outline suggested itself to her from the beginning.

“I had no idea how it would fall together, but I knew where the book was supposed to start and where it ended,” Chast said. “I knew it would end with my parents in the closet.” She added: “I like that they’re with each other.”