Wednesday, 30 December 2015

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

Yipes. This is not a book to be read by the faint-hearted, or those with parents getting older. Or rather, it is a book for those with aging parents, but it's not an easy read. Luckily, my mother is still looking far younger than her years, but my in-laws, while doing very well, are starting to find things slowly changing. We're not anywhere near this territory, and thankfully get along much better with all the parents in our lives than Roz Chast does with her parents, but it's still unsettling. (The reason I say that is that we're very willing and even expecting to have some parents living with us at some point in our lives.)

As a graphic novel, this was burning up the best of the year lists last year and so I eventually got around to picking it up. I've had much better luck finding good books by compiling best of the year lists than I was reading things off the bestseller lists. 

The art is a little ragged, in a way that perfectly suits the story, and seems to mirror the emotional state of Chast's father, and even of Chast herself. Her father struggles with anxiety issues and has for his entire life, while her mother is controlling and angry. They're also in their 90s, and Chast chronicles the quicker decline that happens at that age. (It's also unsettling for me to read as my wonderful grandmother is now 97.) They go from living together in an apartment in the Bronx, weathering major health issues for her mother, hospitalizations for which reveal the depth of her father's dementia. When his normal routine is disrupted and his wife isn't there to be his other half, he is at sea and constantly stressed about his bank books.

From there, it's an eventual trip to a very expensive nursing home, even while Chast struggles with guilt that she isn't taking her parents in. There's a lot here about resolutions to be the perfect loving daughter, which survive first contact with her parents on any given day for about five minutes. The actual visits are long, tedious, and painful, full of guilt and disguised recriminations, and her wishes to be a saintly caring child quickly go out the window. She's really good at capturing the flashes of anger and frustration that it is easy to have as caregivers, but are generally hidden because they feel like they reveal something ugly about us.

Ugly but human, is the point, as is much of this story about Chast's parents. Chast and her reactions, her mother's anger and the fact that they never come to a peaceful, blissful reconciliation before the end. There are still hurts, the effects of a life together still present. The negative parts of a personality don't go away as people fail. 

As a look at aging and human frailty and the seedier, unpleasant aspects of changing, this is a powerful graphic novel. It made me frequently uncomfortable, which I think is the right response. I'm glad I read it, and have been very glad I moved to this model of finding recent "popular" books to read.

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