The Four Elements is a collection of 114 cartoons and short comic strips by Roz Chast which originally appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Mother Jones and The Sciences. Chast’s cartoons are whimsical and abstract in the way they take a typical situation or expression and flip it into logical but bizarre territory. Her spiky, wobbly, drawings create an atmosphere where anything can happen at any time, but even the most anxious events feel benign the way she draws them. For instance, the classical Four Elements featured on the cover of this book are cut down to size with a mildly silly domestic makeover. ‘Earth’ is a little plant in a flowerpot in a small apartment. ‘Water’ is a woman in a bubble-filled bath tub. ‘Fire’ is a toaster burning a bagel with the smoke billowing up. ‘Air’ is a big grey ‘Kooler-King’ air conditioning unit directing frigid air onto a grateful-looking woman.

The interior contents are a stream of conceptual jokes such as a strip called ‘Secondhand Characters’ featuring people edited out of stories, now available to purchase for use in your own novel. A middle-aged woman wearing a pearl necklace is described as “Fully formed, just like new. Cut from novel at the last minute. Good as school mom, nanny, etc. Contact Box 1934”. A man, women and children all holding cocktail glasses and wine bottles are captioned as: “Writer’s block? No time? Just plain lazy? Whole family must go: aristocratic, southern, alcoholic, well thought out. Halfway through book, got cold feet. Box 495”. A man in a sweater stares into the middle distance. His caption reads: “Extremely true to life selfish yet innocent guy needs to learn some tough lessons about life. Author too close, doesn’t have the heart. Box 67″‘.

‘The Follow Up’ continues the fairytale story of the Princess and the Pea, when the high-maintenance young royal becomes such a pain due to her constant hypersensitivity that she is replaced. Unfortunately for the new princess, she is so much the opposite that mockery of her obliviousness becomes widespread: “Did you hear? Last night they put 17 anvils under her mattress!” It’s not all high-concept japery, however. Chast can extract humour from the most mundane sources, such as ’Stores of Mystery’, a strip that muses on just how it is that those out-of-place, expensive and/or always empty shops that everyone avoids on the high street still stay in business: “Fred’s Drugs. Surrounded by cut-rate drug and cosmetic emporiums that sell, let’s say, a bottle of XYZ Shampoo for 79 cents. Same bottle at Fred’s? $2.09!!! How does he do it?” And then there’s “Beauty-Moi Frocks. Weird clothes, always five seasons out of date. Has been there forever. Store is usually pretty empty except for racks and racks of pants suits and the like. Who shops here?”

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