Friday, October 28, 2016

Review: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Aging and dying are topics we don't typically address if we can help it. Very few people want to acknowledge their mortality before they are forced to. I don't know the statistic offhand but the number of people who don't have wills is pretty staggering. There are likely countless reasons why not but one that certainly can't be dismissed is that a will forces people to look their own ultimate end directly in the face. We're a culture that doesn't even like to use the word "died." Instead we say we "lost" someone or that they "passed" to cushion the reality. If we are uncomfortable with death, we are at least as uncomfortable with aging, especially extreme aging. We avoid all of the unpleasant realities of elderly and failing bodies. Once people are no longer spry and fit, they disappear from our advertisements and our sight. To find a book that addresses these usually hidden topics, and to do it with openness and honesty is unusual. That it is a graphic memoir is perhaps even more unusual. Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is just that book though, a no-holds-barred look at Chast's experience caring for her aging parents as they went from their eighties into their nineties and about the parent/child relationship that dictated so much of how they viewed each other and mortality.

New Yorker cartoonist Chast has drawn and written the story of her parents' aging. She looks honestly at the indignities of growing older and at the ways that watching her parents age makes her re-examine her feelings for them, her memories of a strained only childhood, and the changes that the inevitable decline causes, both for her and for Elizabeth and George. She doesn't shy away from the universal difficulties so many face as they age, physically, mentally, emotionally, but she also doesn't shy away from an examination of her own feelings about caring for elderly parents and the generally undiscussed aspects of doing.  The fact that her parents' aging doesn't change the fact of her sometimes tough, sometimes contentious relationship with them (and specifically her mother) is also well on display. Combining comics and prose here often highlights the black humor involved in the end stages of life and the fact that if you didn't laugh, you'd cry many a time. She chronicles Elizabeth and George's reluctance to discuss death or to acknowledge their reduced abilities, their fierce attempt to hold onto their independence, and their eventual, unavoidable decline into dementia and physical frailty. It's tough subject matter indeed.

The memoir is honest, sometimes brutally honest in ways that feel intrusive. The photographs of her parents' apartment after they leave it for assisted living are unspeakably sad although Chast seems to be trying for a levity with them by highlighting the ancient and long discontinued products in them. Her frustration with her parents comes through the story loud and clear and I do appreciate that she hasn't turned them into undeserved saints by virtue of their deaths but sometimes it does feel as if she goes too far in revealing them in all of their truth. Although the exact situations she faces are hers and her parents' alone, the general feel of the memoir will certainly be relatable for many caring for their own parent or parents. I have to admit that I am not a fan of the graphic format, feeling pulled between pictures and words, never allowing me to fully engage in one or the other and this memoir hasn't changed my mind. For me, they do not compliment each other entirely, instead leaving me feeling that the exclusion of one or the other would allow the author to go deeper into the chosen medium rather than splitting the difference between the two. Then again, in such a difficult book, perhaps going deeper would have been a mistake that magnified the things I already had trouble with. I watched my mother experience much of what is portrayed here when she cared for my grandmother but I never doubted that there was a deep and abiding love between them no matter what, a feeling I didn't see enough evidence of in this.  This is an unflinching look at the way we avoid the end of life, the reality and weight of it, and how we all finally do have to deal with it no matter how unpleasant it might be.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Despite all the rave reviews of this one, I sent it back to the library half-read. I sensed the same lack of, say, respect, for want of a better word, for her parents.


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