Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Roz Chast has contributed over a thousand single-panel gag cartoons, short strips and occasional illustrations to the New Yorker magazine since 1978. Her style could be described as conceptual jokes and wry observational cartooning about life in a modern urban environment, specifically the ultra-urban environment of Manhattan, New York City. However it’s considerably more than that as her jittery, stringy drawings cast a distinctly absurdist tone over everything she records. It may just be that she examines the interior and exterior lives of her fellow urbanites and herself so curiously that tiny details and idiosyncrasies are extracted and blown up into huge significance like quantum objects under a microscope. And like quarks, leptons and neutrinos, the mundane laws that govern everyday objects do not apply to her findings, which exist on their own rarified, ridiculous yet logical plane. The very matter-of-fact text that accompanies her wonkily droll pictures further increases their effect.
One cartoon shows us a man reading the obituaries page of his newspaper. The titles of each notice skip right to the subtext. ‘Two Years Younger Than You’, ‘12 Years Younger Than You’, ‘Exactly Your Age’, ‘Three Years Your Junior’, ‘Five Years Your Senior’, ‘Your Age On The Dot’. In another, a vaguely harassed-looking woman stands outside a small storefront with a sign: ‘Mom and Pop Grocerette’. Instead of the usual stuff about price savings and new products, the window posters are filled with the kind of guilt-inducing statements parents drop on their children. “We never see you anymore!” “What’s the matter? Maybe we don’t carry enough of your fancy gourmet items?” “Guess you’re all grown up and have your own life now.” “DON’T WORRY ABOUT US!”
Theories of Everything is a 400-page collection of nearly three decades of Chast’s work, beginning with her very first New Yorker cartoon, plus many others from magazines including Scientific American, House & Garden, Worth, and Redbook. It gathers material from previous book collections Unscientific Americans, Parallel Universes, Mondo Boxo, The Four Elements, Proof of Life on Earth, Childproof, and The Party, After You Left. There is so much high-quality work here that you really don’t need to buy any of the other books excerpted in this big volume, which is fortunate because they are almost all out of print.
Chast has a grown-up sensibility to her work that requires a certain amount of life experience to appreciate. Readers under twenty may struggle to find the humour, but anyone who has worried about the purpose of existence or anxiously considered the meaning of life, or anyone who has a firm opinion on whether Wordle is a better use of their time than Candy Crush will enjoy these happily, intelligently silly strips, which are so witty as to make you feel smarter after you read them. In 2015, those sensibilities were rewarded when Chast received a Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities.