Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done", there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-orientated. Perhaps opium, or heroin."
Yep, that's been on my To-Do list for a very long time. It's far from sustainable in the long term - especially if you have any actual plans - but if the time's drawing near then I want some gear. Some serious gear. Call it a pleasure deferred.
Roz Chast has achieved the virtually impossible: she has written and drawn a graphic novel about the single most painful subject most of us have buried along with our heads in the sand
and, through the skill of her cartooning and selective wisdom, made it a page-turner rather than something I would desperately prefer to look away from. The short-burst presentation helps too.
The subject isn't one's own mortality nor even our parents' mortality, but the possibility of prolonged and ever-increasing frailty before death.
As the book opens Roz Chast's parents are living in a god-awful rented flat in Brooklyn which Roz escaped as soon as she could aged 16. You'll see why. Her mother and father are, however, content with their habitat - however rough, ready, cold and grimy - and as independent as they are co-dependent. They are inseparable and self-supporting. It's all perfectly viable for the moment, but they too have their heads in the sand, hence the title. It's roughly 50% optimism, 50% denial, equalling 100% oblivion.
Her mother is assertive, confident, uncompromising, obstinate, bossy. She had quite a temper on her, manifesting itself in what she proudly described as a "Blast from Chast"! Her father is happy to be hen-pecked for he adores Elizabeth. He is meek and sensitive - what you might call a worrier. Unfortunately, with the onset of senility, it deteriorates into such outright paranoia that he cannot be left on his own and when her mother's overconfidence drives her to use one step-ladder too many, it is the beginning of a very protracted end.
"I had had no idea that my father was so far gone. When he was living with my take-charge mother in familiar, never-changing surroundings, his symptoms of senility had seemed pretty low-key. Certainly not this level of confusion.
"One of the worst parts of senility must be that you have to get terrible news over and over again.
"On the other hand, maybe in between the times of knowing the bad news, you get to forget it and live as if everything is hunky-dory."
Alison Bechdel's a big fan, calling it a "grim, side-splitting memoir" and that's a neat little trick, juggling the horror with the humour. The horror her father feels each time he's told the news he keeps forgetting - that his wife and soul mate is in hospital - is in fact hilarious.
"Speaking of which, where's Mom?"
"Mom is in the hospital."
"OH MY GOD!!! WHAT HAPPENED?!?!?"
Each and every time. It's a cumulatively funny joke based on repetition:
It doesn't hurt that Chast is Edvard Munch's comedic second-cousin. Rarely has eye-popping, wits'-end, freak-the-fuck-out been so explosively expressed by a pen on the page. Exasperation too. We're talking Roberta Gregory (NAUGHTY BITS) amplified by Gary Northfield (TEENYTINSAURS).
She's also a dab hand at wobbly-lined fragility, and I'm afraid you'll be witness to an increasing amount of that as her parents' conditions deteriorate, excruciatingly so.
As Chast herself surmises, what may have helped her examine the stark proceedings with both candour and sanity is a certain detachment to her mother's condition born of that bad temper which Roz was so often subjected to when a child; along with the blunt bons môts, "I'm not your friend. I'm your mother".
There's a photo of Roz Chast aged 11 in which she looks 30. There are heartbreaking photos of her parents' effects taken when the cartoonist clears out their flat. There are photos of approximately two hundred pencils found in different draws. There are photos of clutter - the debris of a life left behind. There's also a very curious photo of the inside of their fridge.
"The tins are from Meals On Wheels. The turquoise bin with all the tape on it is one of my mother's inventions and has been since the mid-1960s. It's called the "cheese-tainer" and held - obviously - cheese. Don't know about the empty Styrofoam egg cartons."
Twenty-four hours after reading this I began my own clear-out back home. Try it! Start filling the first bin! It's very therapeutic.
I've seen this sort of thing done very, very badly by those who think comics is anyone's game. It's not. It's a medium which requires specific talents, discipline and very careful judgement. Roz Chast has a long career as a highly acclaimed professional cartoonist under her belt and it shows on every page.
I leave you with some figures to frighten the fuck out of you and your wallet: when Chast's parents were relatively able-bodied (all things become relative), The Place which she finally persuaded them was inevitable accommodation cost $7,400 a month before extras. Extras soon rose to $1,200 a month. Eventually the total for her mother alone rose to $14,000 a month.
What kind of salary are you on?