Theories of Everything: Selected


Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, Health Inspected Cartoons
by Roz Chast

Celebrating Books
The famed New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast (see sample at left) and historian Douglas Brinkley presented keynote addresses for the university’s 10th annual faculty book colloquium in December 2011. The colloquium is sponsored by the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences and by University Libraries.

Roz Chast visited the university in December 2011 for a Center for the Humanities event celebraing books. Her latest book is a compilation of her favorite cartoons called Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006. (Courtesy Image – Bloomsbury USA; reprint 2008)

Here’s how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you’d like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, Health Inspected Cartoons by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury, 2006).

Here’s a book that I was actually going to write about a week ago, but I felt that was too close to the Jack Ziegler piece I did for my Reprint This! blog, and figured I could wait a few days before I went gaga over another New Yorker cartoonist. Heaven knows I wouldn’t want people to think that the Hipster Dad family of blogs were all obsessed with a single topic or anything; that just wouldn’t do!

This may seem like the strangest thing to say about an artist whose work you love, but I really enjoy the way that Roz Chast’s work just slips completely under everybody’s radar, even my own. I don’t remember whether I first saw one of her cartoons in the New Yorker or in some other magazine, but I recall being really surprised by it. Her art just wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before, and whatever the piece was, it wasn’t overtly funny. I remember just looking at the page and wondering whether it was supposed to be there at all. Was this intended as a cartoon, or was it some strange 1980s ad or something.

Clearly, I don’t give Chast the credit that she’s due. If I had any sense, then when I went to the humor section of any good bookstore, I’d be hoping to find something specific by her. Instead, I simply stumbled across this mammoth, wonderful hardcover collection at Eagle Eye a few months ago and was every bit as pleased at my find as I was to learn such a great-looking book existed at all. This is a genuinely terrific collection, meeting most of my obsessive-compulsive desires for size and weight. I don’t like skimpy 120-page paperbacks which fit in your coat pocket; I like a big, satisfying chunk of comics and cartoons, and this 400-page doorstop is exactly what this customer would have ordered, had he the brains to put such a request together in the first place. This is a book that I should have demanded many years ago, except that my demand would probably come with page numbers. Their omission here is genuinely odd.

If you’re not familiar with Chast, you really are missing out. I think she’s one of the most mercurial cartoonists working today, since her work can vary so wildly in tone. Normally, she has a playful, winking sensibility, and enjoys tweaking stereotypes. I’ve only had the great pleasure of driving between Burlington and Middlebury just once, but that was enough to tell me that Chast’s cartoon about the shops in New York’s newest neighborhood, Little Vermont, is absolutely true. There’s so much truth behind the cartoons, however, that there must be some delightful (to the reader, anyway) neurosis driving her humor. How else to describe the contents of “Bad Mom” magazine, if not the sort of thing that the artist secretly dreads people might be thinking about her?

While her panels are really entertaining on their own, it’s in the occasional, far-too-infrequent strip work where Chast really excels. There are some great pages of marital arguments and nagging mothers that spiral absurdly out of control, but I think the standout might be a four page strip investigating the airlines’ unclaimed baggage depot in Scottsdale, Alabama. It’s a surreal, intelligent and occasionally macabre set of terrific cartoons, and certainly a welcome addition to anybody’s New Yorker library. Highly recommended.

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