Roz Chast does own a ruler. Probably. But it doesn't see a lot of use. She's just not that interested in straight lines. "Sometimes they look very harsh to me," she says. "I like a little wiggliness. It's like a little conversation that you're just having with somebody. I like to be taken seriously, but I don't want anybody to think this is life and death. I'm not their oncologist."
No, she is not. A small, excitable woman with large glasses, Chast is arguably the greatest living practitioner of a minor art, that of the magazine cartoon, and her work is now collected in a very large book titled Theories of Everything (Bloomsbury; 394 pages). Generally speaking, a cartoonist is somebody who draws little pictures that make people laugh. Chast's drawings do that, but they also do much more.
Chast, 51, wasn't supposed to be a cartoonist. When she was at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s, she wanted to be a painter. "Cartooning was not anything that was looked on very positively," she says. "You were trying to communicate with people, which was very tacky. Definitely a no-no." Fortunately, she wasn't very good at painting, so she turned her efforts elsewhere. Some artists take years to evolve their individual sensibility, but Chast was Chast from the very first cartoon she sold, which was titled "Little Things." It's the first cartoon in Theories of Everything, and it depicts, well, little things: tiny, humble, abstract doodles with nonsense names like tiv and spak and chent. When you look at "Little Things," you don't laugh. You experience some amused, melancholy, thoughtful emotion that is uniquely Chastian.
She lives in a small house in Connecticut that when I visit is covered with unusually elaborate Halloween decorations. Chast has a husband, two children--one of whom is picking a banjo upstairs--and two very vocal parrots that say things like "Waffles!" and "Look, damn it!" and, for some reason, "What a big toast!" For 28 years, she has sent half a dozen ideas to the New Yorker every Tuesday and then waited to see which would be accepted. True to her characters, she gets very anxious about it. "It does not get any easier. At all. It's horrible!"
Chast's cartoons are like entire novels compressed into 4-in. by 3-in. rectangles. One consists of four panels showing ordinary people just reading, sewing, cleaning. The title: "Tuesday Night Fever." It's Madame Bovary writ small. Then there's the one showing the front window of an "Adult Book Shoppe," which displays such salacious titles as Making a Will and What Is a Mortgage?
Her calculatedly amateur--wiggly--style gives her drawings an unpretentious air that allows viewers to be surprised by their greatness. But however ardently they flirt with profundity, Chast's cartoons are always rooted in the regular humiliations of daily life. Earlier this year, a cartoon came to her full blown, right on the sofa where she's sitting for this interview. Her daughter was doing her homework and listening to a CD. "Sometimes you just kind of want to see if they're paying any attention to you, you know?" Chast says. "So I started to do a little dance to the music." She demonstrates. "And she just looked up and said, 'Mom, stop it. You're hurting me.' And I just--it was like, that was it."