Parallel Universes: An Assortment of Cartoons by Roz Chast features 131 strips and other drawings compiled from appearances in magazines including The New Yorker, Mother Jones, National Lampoon, Psychology Today, and Horticulture before 1984. Chast’s style of humour involves extracting new meanings from phrases that we take for granted. A woman sits on a sofa, experiencing ‘The 3pm of The Soul’. As the exact opposite time of day to the dark and isolated 3am of existential crises that strike insomniacs and anxious types, this is a very different kind of interior dialogue. The woman’s thoughts instead runs through a harmless, banal to-do list of domestic tasks: “Defrost Lamb chops. Pick up drycleaning. Call Marge,” and so on.

‘Don Z. and his User-Friendly Apartment’ features a man standing a room listening to all his appliances talking to him. “Ready for a snack yet, Don?” calls his refrigerator from the kitchen. “Say, Don! How’s about we spin some platters?” says his record turntable in the living room. “Don? Do you think you could use a little more light?” says the lamp next to his armchair. “Don! Relax. Take a load off,” says his armchair calling to him from the side of the room. The watercoloured, mildly weird drawings turn this Philip K Dick-style nightmare into a jaunty offhand ribtickler, as long as you don’t think too closely about what this might be like day in, day out. It’s an approach applying to much of her work, like another strip entitled ‘Underutilised Icebreakers’. Three people are at a party, each of them obviously intending to start a conversation with you. A man in a suit says “What if a meteor came crashing through that window right this minute?” A woman holding a martini says “Do you think the floor can support this many people?” Another man says “Excuse me, but do you smell gas?”

Chast’s very literary approach involves lots of conversations, monologues and commentaries, but there are plenty of ideas that are purely visual, such as a woman dressed in an assortment of clothes: three hats, seven or eight jackets, skirts and scarves, over three pairs of trousers worn on top of each other. Why is she wearing all these things at the same time? She’s walking out of a store called ‘Sally Ann’s All You Can Wear – $10’. Another page is simply a beautiful drawing of a group of buildings, entitled ‘A Street in the Philosophy District’. If you look closer, you notice that all the signs share a common theme. Ed’s House of Theories allows you to “think now – pay later”. The Idea Barn stocks “new and used” and what’s more, “we make repairs”, while the big and bold L&J Concept Warehouse exclaims “if it’s been thought, we have it”. And do you dare to enter Logic Land? Their window says “This week only: have your beliefs shattered – only $2.00.” Ben Katchor has derived entire books from this idea, but here it’s just one of many such conceptual jokes, from the creative mind of a very original thinker.

This book is out of print, but most of the work selected here has been reprinted in Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006.