Going Into Town; A Love Letter to New York, by Roz Chast, multi-award-winning New Yorker cartoonist, was born of an attempt to explain the geography of Manhattan to her suburban-raised, city college-bound daughter: “If you want to go from 52nd to 55th street… you have to walk THREE BLOCKS UPTOWN!” Her daughter responds, “What’s a block?” Chast draws her face expanding into a deranged expression, distorting into an almost Manhattan-shaped form, her yellow hair exploding over the panel borders, her eyebrows elevated so far into her forehead they look like horns. Lines animate her quivering body.
Chast explains in the accompanying text, “I wanted to introduce her to Manhattan and didn’t want them to ‘get off on the wrong foot’.” In my favourite image in this volume, all major players are drawn: Chast, her daughter and Manhattan. Manhattan, delightfully profiling a long green nose of Central Park, stands slightly uncertainly, pink arms and feet dangling, next to the nonchalant, hands-in-jeans-pockets of Chast’s daughter – two awkward peers left alone in a room for the first time. This is Chast’s world of humorous autobio-geographics, where whimsy and fascination, and a deep love of the city, are dosed with textual and visual (parental) anxiety.
Chast is no stranger to the fraught, complex world of personal geography. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, her memoir of her parents’ ageing and death, the Brooklyn of her childhood is intensely described and drawn. In Going into Town she writes: “Sometimes when you grow up in a place, you need to get away. I saw Brooklyn differently from people who came there from Wisconsin or wherever. I saw the ghost of the sad, dark, vociferous grocerette of my childhood. There was nothing there for me.” In contrast, her drawings of Manhattan are rich, animated and colourful; she “really like[s] DENSITY OF VISUAL INFORMATION”. Her images of storefronts – layers of shops, psychics, massages parlours, dentists and a cat psychiatrist – transform buildings into comics pages; throughout her book buildings are sources of narratives, anecdotes and advice. The shop that only sells ribbons, the shop no one goes into, apartments, ancient landmarks and museums. Of the latter, she sagely advises: “If you get Museum’d out. It’s not a class trip. You can leave whenever you want.” If, after all this architecture, one needs the release of landscape, do not fear: Chast notes that there are 70 parks in the city, and reminds the reader that there is more nature in the buildings than you might think: “The main wildlife in Manhattan [is] insects: cockroaches, bedbugs, silverfish.”
Roz Chast has been published in the New Yorker since 1978. As a woman cartoonist she was a novelty but also a maverick: “When I first walked into that room [at the New Yorker], it was all men.” The next generation of New Yorker contributors acknowledge her impact. Emily Flake, a younger cartoonist, acclaimed Chast’s significance in the New York Times: “She really opened the doors to a certain kind of idiosyncratic weirdness at the New Yorker. Part of that has to do with coming from a point of view owned by a woman. She wasn’t the first female cartoonist at the New Yorker, but she’s one of the first female stars. She carved out a space for a more personal brand of weirdness for people who are similarly off the map.”
Chast revels in her “off the map” excursions around the city and the self. “My daughter and I were talking about belly buttons the other day, and I said, basically we are just carelessly tied Hefty bags,” said Chast in a recent Vogue interview. Going into Town reads simultaneously as a love letter to the city, an ode to maternal anxiety and a record of personal geography. What then to make of that map of the city, lolling alongside her daughter? Why, of course, it is Chast’s very own, carefully tied, Manhattan-shaped Hefty bag.