STOCKBRIDGE — Roz Chast’s cartoons, the subject of a terrific summer show at the Norman Rockwell Museum, are about everything that’s incommensurable in life. They try to equate, on the one hand, this, this, that, these (how many do you want?), oh and that, too, take your pick; and on the other, splat. Sound of escaping air. Nothing.
How I love them.
The comedy — and forgive me, I’m pretty sure explaining the mechanics of humor isn’t part of my job description; I promise to plant myself in front of a Mark Rothko as soon as I’m done here — comes from the implied failure. You cannot equate them. And yet, even as the number on the right side of the equation remains zero, the terms on the left maniacally multiply.
“Is there a support group for people who worry about spontaneous combustion?”
“Introducing The 1999 Why-You-Can’t-Have-a-Dog Calendar” (not just 12 reasons, but 13!)
“Excuse Cards: If One Doesn’t Work, Try Another.”
There’s something hilariously frantic in Chast’s cartoons, which are mainstays of The New Yorker magazine. The frantic-ness is keyed to the tension between all that we do, think, accumulate, and care about, the reasons we rehearse, the ceaseless mental labor we perform — and the annihilating finality of death.
Of course, all this could be my own projection. Or it could be because I recently finished Chast’s cartoon memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” in which Chast describes the slow decline of her parents, George and Elizabeth, along with her own struggles to care for them and various, ahem, “end-of-life issues” — like, for instance, losing control of your bowels in your daughter’s house after your husband’s death.
Also, for said daughter: Endless paperwork. Constant worry. Complex, irreconcilable feelings.
Since its publication last year, “Can’t We Talk About” — which is not only brutally unsentimental, but tender, straightforward, and very funny — has been accumulating awards like there’s no tomorrow. It was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. It won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for autobiography, and the Kirkus Award for nonfiction. Chast also this year won a Heinz Award for arts and humanities.
About half of the book’s original drawings appear here. There are also photographs (which appear in the book, too) of the astonishing clutter in her parents’ Brooklyn apartment, and of some of the things Chast chose to rescue when the time finally came to move them — they were both 94 — to an assisted living facility in Connecticut. (A few of the things themselves, including a puzzling pair of horse-head bookends, are displayed in a glass vitrine.)
The selection presents an opportunity to admire up close Chast’s characteristically tremulous, terrifically deft line, and to read the memoir in condensed form. That said, the show as a whole has so much text that you might also choose, as I did, to skim through this gallery, focus on the others, and read the memoir back home.
Have a comforting cup of tea — or something harder — by your side as you do.
Chast, an only child, is especially good on her parents’ characters. Her mother was a “perfectionist” with a “terrible, overpowering temper.” Her father was gentle, hopelessly impractical, and a worrywart. He walked around, said his wife, “with his feelers out.”
She’s also good on how they functioned as a pair. Both were the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia. They grew up a few blocks from each other in East Harlem. Both lost family in the Holocaust. Their own lives had been far from easy.
“The rocks in his head match the holes in mine!” her mother liked to say. “The concept of looking for ‘something better,’ or ‘being happy,’ ” notes Chast, “that was for modern people or movie stars. i.e., degenerates.”
The whole journey, from the beginning of the end (that’s the title of chapter one) through the dreadful, slow unspooling of that end to the actual end itself is so absorbing, so grimly prosaic, and yes — remarkably — so funny that by the time you come to the several drawings Chast made of her mother on the night she died, you are ready to dissolve.
What’s in the other rooms? Illustrations from Chast’s previous books, several of which are aimed at children. Since anxiety is Chast’s great subject, there in every line she draws, it comes as no surprise that many of these children’s illustrations, too, focus on fear and worry, preempting themes in the memoir — although, mercifully, with a lighter touch.
A watercolor from “Around the Clock,” titled “From [Age] 1 to 2, Small John Paul Worries About Wires in the Wall,” shows a terrified boy sitting upright in bed. The thought bubble above him shows an electrical diagram of fiendish complexity.
It’s fun to make mental connections between works like this and “The Wheel of Doom,” a board game design that appears on page 29 of the memoir. The game presents a characteristically generous smorgasbord of arbitrary morbidities, from “Friend nearly blinded by mascara causing infection” and “Friend’s son killed by baseball” to “Guy who almost died after playing oboe” and “A rash, then dead.”
Also included in the show is a selection of the New Yorker cartoons and covers Chast has been making since 1978. That was the year she first submitted a bunch of small drawings to the magazine and was told, in a written reply from cartoon editor Lee Lorenz, to “come back every week.”
Among them are many hilarious and often lovely drawings, brilliantly captioned. My favorite — perhaps it was a side effect of the emotional exhaustion induced by the memoir — shows a woman sitting alone at a kitchen table. It’s called “The Boulevard of Unbroken Dreams,” and it lists those impressively specific dreams in three thought bubbles connected to her head:
“Tonight I’m going to broil some salmon!”
“After that, I’ll watch TV or maybe READ!!”
“Then later, if I’m lucky, I’ll GO TO BED!!!”
Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs
At: Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge. Through Oct. 26. 413-298-4100,firstname.lastname@example.org.