I know this won’t win me many friends in some quarters but my main problem with graphic novels is that they are typically so much better as graphics than they are as novels. Even when I look at the graphic novels I’ve loved and admired, I have to admit that I like the artwork much more than I do the writing. Most graphics novelists–in my experience–are visual artists first, writers second.
To be fair, most writers are not visual artists at all.
This was not the case with Roz Chast’s wonderful graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. Ms. Chat’s memoir deals with her parents old age, her attempts to see that they are cared for and what is was like working with them through their final years. Her parents are challenging people. Married nearly 70 years, they grew up together, basically joined-at-the-hip for life except when at work and when he was a soldier in WWII. Even then they wrote to each other multiple times a day, and saved all of the letters they received.
Neither of her parents wants to make end-of-life plans or talk about how long they can continue living on their own. Neither does Ms. Chast, at first. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant follows Ms. Chast as she tries to keep her parents in their apartment, then to get them into an assisted living facility, eventually to convince her mother to sign Do Not Resuscitate papers.
So now you probably want to know how depressing the book is. Is it a sad book or a one of those books where everyone laughs until the end of life and learns something valuable to give it all meaning.
What struck me about Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant was not the laughter, though there is some, nor the depressing parts, though they are there, too. What struck me is how open Ms. Chast is about everything, how raw she is willing to get. This book is really what her experience was: strange, humorous, frustrating, maddening, heartbreaking. There are no Tuesday’s with Morrie moments. She does not get to finally bond with her mother in the end the way she always wanted to. Her parents were not that kind of people.
This section is a fairly good example. After father has begun suffering pretty badly from memory loss, her mother is hospitalized for several weeks. Ms. Chast cannot leave her father alone in the family’s Brooklyn apartment so she brings him to her home in Connecticut. He forgets where is his and what is going on repeatedly and talks about random things all the time.
When her mother recovers enough to be sent home, she refuses to move anywhere but the old apartment in Brooklyn. Ms. Chast gets her and her father into the apartment, leaving them on their own, wracked with guilt about what she is doing.
Which is what many readers will find when they read Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, things that basically happened to them almost just like that.
And if they haven’t happened to you yet, they probably will. There is only one escape from old age.
But I don’t want this review to turn dark. I never felt Ms. Chat’s book turned dark. Though there were no moments of grace like I’ve come to expect from Raymond Carver stories, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant was honest, not dark. There’s a difference.
One other thing I admired about Ms. Chast’s book was the times she broke from the graphic novel structure to insert pictures as pieces of evidence. The first was a series of photographs featuring what she found in her parents apartment when she finally had to clear it out. All the strange things people save during a lifetime were there in the closets and the cupboard drawers. Things like a her mother’s reading glasses, three pairs; thirty some purses, a drawer full of lids, piles of books and papers. None of them with any real value. Drawing these things or writing about them would not have had anything like the impact photographs did.
The second major break was towards the end when Ms. Chast includes a series of drawings she did of her mother while she was sitting beside her during her final days. Having nothing to do but wait, she did what you might expect an artist to do–draw. These drawings have no captions, they do not need any, though each one is very like the rest.
Finally, while Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is a sad story, it’s a story we all share to some degree in some way. To me that’s a connection, something that brings the writer and the readers together. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned.
And this review has turned out to be mushier than I intended.
You may not be in a place where reading Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is something you can do, but when you are, I highly recommend it.
I list it as the best graphic novel I have ever read.