If the universe is really made up of tiny strings, as some physicists argue, the work of cartoonist Roz Chast is the first comprehensive, and comprehensible, proof.
Almost 30 years of Chast's nervous little drawings, created mainly for The New Yorker, have been collected in a ridiculously huge volume called "Theories of Everything," published by Bloomsbury. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, introduces the collection.
The book's weighty title (and weighty weight) is part of the joke. Chast's kitchen-sink characters and fussy squiggles insult the very notion of a pretentious coffee-table book. Each panel looks as if it's been crumpled up, left in the pocket of a denim jumper and sent through the wash twice. The pages swarm with balding, dot-eyed men, dowdy ladies in horn-rimmed glasses, and dumb kids with one protruding tooth. Background objects like floor rugs, lamps and couches are rendered as itchy glyphs.
Under the big-little-book joke, however, lies a big-big-book genius. Using bathwater-gray washes and tiny lines that clump like hair in a bathroom drain, Chast maps out the interstices of the human mind, the between-meals, between-shaves, between-everything hours that fill the vast majority of life.
For example, as a man watches an opera, we are privy to his innermost thoughts. "La, la, la, duck falling off a ladder...ha, ha, Ethel Merman's shoe," he muses to himself as he falls asleep. Another man sits on a couch with a thought balloon over his head: "Birth, bed, bath, beer, bankruptcy, bunions, bifocals, balding and beyond."
Thanks to the unfathomable origami of Chast's thought processes, we learn of suddenly indispensable categories of behavior such as the "mini-rebellion:" "When writing a thank-you letter for a disliked gift, make deliberate spelling and grammatical errors."
This is not the "have you ever noticed?" lint dredged by hundreds of stand-up comics. Life is a big deal, Chast seems to say -- just not in the way everybody wants you to think it is. If you're looking for the essence of the universe, better to contemplate the mysteriously shifting doily on the sofa or that doomed restaurant on the corner that keeps changing hands.
On one page, she lays out the contents of a mock-ambitious book entitled "The Piece of Thread," including dedication, acknowledgments and copyright page. Is she skewering self-important authors or celebrating the cheerful human delusion that life and work have meaning? Why pick?
Chast loves to layer alien categories on top of one another, where they wobble like incompatible jello molds. In "How Much Should You Tip?" she informs us that for teachers, "20 percent of tuition at the end of the semester is the usual amount." A panel from "Adult Absence Notes" reads: "Please excuse my daughter from conjugal duties tonight. She has a 24-hour virus."
Since Chast's first cartoon was published in 1978, her work has moved away from cryptic visual haikus to longer storylines, some of them skirting the abyss of marital-miscommunication and child-rearing humor best left to less gifted humorists. Many of the longer stories, however, penetrate into corners of the mind never plumbed by poets, philosophers or psychiatrists.
In "Millie's Gear Slips," arguably Chast's masterpiece, a woman suddenly realizes she has forgotten to bring her sweater on a family vacation. It takes only four minutes and 11 seconds to turn around and get the sweater, but Millie becomes obsessed with the time gap. "This is exactly the place I would have been four minutes and 11 seconds ago, but now it's slightly different, and I'll never see what I was supposed to see," she keeps thinking.
In gets worse in ways that are worth describing because they reveal the essence of Chast.
Millie sits in the passenger seat, her husband and family grinning obliviously as she reaches a horrifying inner conclusion: "My real life now = (my real life) - (four minutes + 11 seconds)!" (Chast has a mild obsession with mathematics that frequenly pops up in unsuitable contexts.) In a classic Chastian moment, Millie stands in the supermarket, thinking "Normally I would have been in Aisle Three, but here I am, amongst the produce."
Amongst the produce! You lose half the humor without the visuals, but suffice it to say only Chast could have turned that phrase. She peels life's onion from normal to strange and back to normal with the skill of an existential Julia Child. Thanks to this generous new collection, her fans can linger "amongst the produce" as long as they please.