The cartoonist Roz Chast, of New Yorker fame, was in St. Louis on Monday to do a reading from her new book, I Must Be Dreaming (Bloomsbury, 2023). The event was expected to draw more people than the usual bookstore space could host, so tickets were sold months in advance for seats in a small auditorium at a local high school. I bought mine minutes after they were offered then promptly forgot about them.
Much of Chast’s work is the art of the freakout—consternation, frustrated communication, crazed kaleidoscope eyes, sweat droplets, and captions such as, “Of COURSE I sound ‘weird’! I’m dreaming!”—so of course I got an email from the bookstore reminding me of the event only two hours before I was due to be there. It was an hour’s drive, and I still had to make myself presentable, as one of Chast’s characters might say, and contact a friend I had meant to invite.
As I was pulling up past traffic around a busy rec center to an entrance of the high school, a taxi stopped abruptly in front of me. The passenger and driver seemed to be in conflict, so I swerved around and parked. No one else was around. The passenger from the taxi walked to a bank of glass doors to the school gym and started tugging at each in turn, making little noises of frustration that they were locked.
“They’re locked?” my friend called helpfully.
The small woman said something in the near-dark. When we got closer I saw it was Roz Chast. Was it Roz Chast? I was pretty sure it was Roz Chast. I introduced myself and said we would help get her where she needed to be. There followed fifteen minutes of us all walking around looking for the event and occasionally calling people for help.
Chast was sweet and grateful but prone to trying something else. She insisted we go on, she would be fine in the chilly dark outside the massive locked building, which we ignored, no doubt to her discomfort. For small talk she volunteered she was reading in Chicago next, and when I asked which bookstore or venue, she said she had no idea, she never opened the email until the day of an event.
(Later that night she would say from the stage, “My husband’s from the Midwest…and I grew up in Brooklyn, and we have sort of different relating styles? […] I get very awkward making chitchat with people, and every once in a while I think, you know, Goddamnit, you just gotta come out of your shell, you just gotta start a conversation and be a regular person. Once I remember I was online in the grocery store…and I thought, I just gotta say something, and I was buying grapes, and I just said, Uh, you know, grapes are good! And the person just looked at me like I was bats. It was so embarrassing.”)
Outside the high school Chast told a person on a call she did not even know where on the campus the reading was. To be helpful I held up the email on my phone with that information; she flapped her hands, said her brain would not let her do two things at once, then let fly with a string of New York profanity that would make an army diver’s ears blush. I laughed. We were in one of her cartoons; she was trapped in one of my dispatches. The situation was uncomfortably close, given the topic of her new book, to being in a dream. Finally the delinquent event coordinator appeared, frosted hair and unctuous manner, to lead us to the auditorium, and my friend and I found our seats.
A “reading” from a book of cartoons means something different. Chast mostly gave a relaxed, funny talk about her career, work, and life. I had not remembered that as a prototypical New Yorker she hates the outdoors, and I wondered if she registered the Midwest—not, after all, The City, even in a city such as St. Louis—as one big outdoors. It was interesting to see photos of her work in other media such as beads, embroidery, rugs, and eggs.
Chast grew up loving New Yorker cartoonists and still seems a bit surprised, even after publishing some 800 cartoons at the magazine, that she makes a large part of her living as one now. She explained how she went to Rhode Island School of Design in the ’70s, when conceptual and installation art was popular.
“I came in, I wanted to be a cartoonist, but there was no cartooning department, and they didn’t really like cartoonists very much at that time. […] It was like, if you want to draw cartoons and make people laugh, why don’t you go to clown school?”
Chast said she drew before she could write, from the age of three, “and it was the only thing I really liked to do, the only thing I could do. In my heart of hearts I thought [in my teens], well, I think maybe I want to be a cartoonist for The Village Voice….” She became one, then published with The National Lampoon, which also employed her “cartoon heroes.”
She knew the New Yorker did not then use cartoons in her style, which she called “idiosyncratic,” but thought, “Ehhhhh, why not try?” Her first accepted cartoon was titled “Little Things” and showed ten doodled objects with nonsense names such as “chent,” “spak,” and “tiv.” That was 1978. She has now published more than twenty books.
After her talk Chast signed our and everyone else’s books. My friend invited her to grab a bite with us when she was done. Chast blinked, either considering a Midwestern kindness or wondering how she kept getting into these weird situations. She thanked us and said she would probably just head back to her hotel.