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The Farther Side

For nearly 30 years, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast has taken her field to absurd heights by focusing on ordinary schlubs.


The cartoonist Roz Chast has a favorite memory of her years in Providence in the mid-1970s, when she attended the Rhode Island School of Design. No, it has nothing to do with drawing - she was actually a painting major, and, by her own admission, not a very good one. "They were all oil paintings, and they all sucked," she says with a beatific smile. Forget the art education. It's the city itself that comes to mind. Providence was a lot less tony than it is today, and she found herself drawn to its eccentricities. She would browse the forlorn arcade malls downtown - "old, dusty outlet shops with boxes of tiny leotards that might be next to a box of beach bags or rubber gloves or plastic flowers." She still wonders about her discoveries. "Why would you put an infant in leotards?" she says, fascinated by the thought. "I loved that."

Chast, whose scribbly, absurd, and utterly delightful cartoons have been a staple in The New Yorker for almost 30 years, finds humor - a huge surplus of it - in the most mundane aspects in the lives of the most ordinary schlubs. Her characters are uneventful people in pants, housedresses, and eyeglasses, people who are fretful, self-conscious, a little overwhelmed. They are, in fact, all of us, which is what makes her cartoons so beloved.

Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons by Roz Chast 1978-2006, a sort of mid-career retrospective for the 51-year-old illustrator, comes out this week. It was originally planned as a 25-year anthology of her work, but she's a procrastinator. So, a 28-year anniversary. What's the gift for that, she asks with a laugh - bauxite?

Despite all those years on the prestigious New Yorker staff, she still gets anxious about the magazine's weekly cartoon selection process. She typically submits five to seven new drawings each week, then holds her breath, hoping one makes it. "Hopefully it doesn't last longer than three or four weeks," she says in her singsong voice, sitting on a worn couch in her Connecticut home. "After that, you just want to kill yourself," she adds cheerfully.

Readers who go through new issues of The New Yorker searching for that familiar scrawl of a signature know that her work is more angst-ridden than Howard Hughes at a thumb-wrestling convention. For the "Note on the Author" page at the back of Theories of Everything, Chast submitted a drawing of herself at age 9, lying on a crumb-covered bedspread, engrossed in The Big Book of Horrible Rare Diseases. Life is perilous, Chast's cartoons tell us again and again. Might as well have a sick sense of humor about it.

The crazy quilt of humanity in her native Brooklyn certainly fed that worldview from an early age. She lived a few blocks away from beautiful Victorian houses, she recalls. But that wasn't quite her neighborhood. "We had gas stations, junk stores," she says, and women sitting on beach chairs in the summer, "making faces at you as you walked by."

She and her husband, writer Bill Franzen, who have two children, moved to their two-story home in Ridgefield, a southern Connecticut bedroom community, 16 years ago. In the corner of Chast's office stands a bookcase stuff ed with rare books by her hero, the ghoulish New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams. The space is decorated with drawings her children made years ago and with old, anonymous photos she finds at tag sales.

Her cartoons deal with interiors - specifically, the random wanderings of the voices in her head. One early sketch depicts a housewife on a couch, enduring "The 3 p.m. of the Soul" ("Defrost lamb chops," the woman thinks). In another, an epitaph is lettered in the cartoonist's crabbed handwriting:

Tuned in,
Turned on,
Dropped out,
Dropped in,
Worked out,
Saved up,
Dropped dead.

"She was one of the few cartoonists who immediately seemed important to us," recalls Lee Lorenz, a veteran New Yorker contributor who was the magazine's cartoon editor when Chast arrived. But her oddball humor and scratchy drawings were a wild departure from the magazine's traditionally stylish "he-she gag cartoons," as Lorenz puts it - the cartoon equivalent of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay in a Cary Grant film festival. "There was a tremendous uproar" among readers initially, he says. "They didn't get it."

Downstairs at her house, there is a den almost entirely given over to the family birds - a parakeet, a bluestreak lory, and an African gray named Eli, a misnamed female who has her own long list of "Things I Like to Say" tacked to the wall, written in Chast's inimitable hand.

As closely linked as Chast's work is to The New Yorker, she does step out occasionally. Her cartoons have appeared in Scientific American and Harvard Business Review, and she recently created a conceptual spread for Travel + Leisure based on a trip she took with the humor writer Patricia Marx to the Galapagos Islands, of all places. That was a big trip for the cartoonist. Little flights of fancy are more her style.

She imagines herself peering tentatively into her own brain cavity: "No thoughts at all!" she says in bubbleheaded exaggeration. "It is just a vacuum in there. It's amazing it hasn't collapsed in on itself."

When you've already concocted "Theories of Everything," you're entitled to an off day or two.

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