The 3 p.m. of her soul is a laugh a minute
New York — IT won't do any good to describe her. She's not the recognizable one. It's her work - those spindly, childlike drawings with their sophisticated, weird humor - that is well known. Or at least stuck on countless refrigerator doors. She's Roz Chast - ``R. Chast'' - creator of those wavy, boxed cartoons that run almost weekly in The New Yorker.
You know the ones, the trios of rectangles with their freaked-out, nerdy occupants living such modern times as ``Afternoon of the Living Dead'' (``My, my, it's almost suppertime) and ``The 3 p.m. of the Soul'' (``Defrost lamb chops; Vacuum hall rug.'').
If ``Garfield'' and ``Bloom County'' are the nation's comic-strip kings, with their pudgy animals and can't-miss-it humor, then Ms. Chast's Angst-ridden urban sensibility is the sign of a different time, even by sophisticated New Yorker standards.
``Tell you the truth, I don't really analyze it that much,'' Chast said in a rare interview in her Brooklyn condo. ``I just enjoy going into my studio, thinking my thoughts, and drawing.''
Some kind of thoughts. Or, as Chast might draw it, SOME KINDA THOUGHTS! In a business notorious for its lack of women, Chast is one of the few female cartoonists making a living and a name for herself. Even without the stuffed-animal market (Jim Davis's ``Garfield'') or Pulitzer Prizes (``Bloom County's'' Berke Breathed) or the big syndication rights that are the lifeblood of almost every free-lance cartoonist, Chast has what most would kill for: a regular slot in the hautest of literary magazines. Not only is she The New Yorker's only regularly contributing female cartoonist, but she is also the youngest.
``Most comic artists come to us when they are trying to find themselves and their style,'' says Lee Lorenz, art director of The New Yorker. ``But Roz came fully formed, even at the very beginning of her career. And what she showed us was not like anything we'd seen before.''
Indeed, Chast's blend of clich'e, irony, and razor-sharp social observation has not only become her stock in trade, but has also stretched the boundaries of traditional cartooning. William Shawn, then New Yorker editor, was so impressed with Chast's originality that he's said to have asked, ``But how does she know they are even cartoons?''
It's almost a yuppie success story - the kind Chast skewers in print - this apparently effortless rise to fame by the shy-to-the-point-of-gawky woman who, upon graduating as a painter from the Rhode Island School of Design, knew only two things: ``That I didn't want to get a 9-to-5 job if I could help it,'' and ``I had always liked cartoons and funny drawings.''
That was 1977. One year and a couple of failed attempts as a free-lance illustrator later, Chast had sold her first cartoon to The New Yorker. It was called ``Little Things,'' a drawing of nonsense syllables and corresponding nonsense objects. What did the venerable New Yorker say upon this momentous acceptance?
``Um, they said, `We're going to take this one.''' Pause. Laugh. It takes a moment for Chast's wryness to hit, but when it does you're a notch closer to understanding the mind behind the unique, often enigmatic work. In 10 years, Chast has spawned several imitators, cultivating what her Harper & Row publishers call ``a very devoted following'' (she's done four books). Says Richard Eder, a Pulitzer-winning book critic: ``Her shaky urban characters drift silently, thinking not talking, and alone even in company.''
It is a characterization almost as apt for the cartoonist herself. Hidden behind oversize glasses and a fat sheaf of bangs the color of wheat, this slight towhead looks about 15 years her junior. (She's actually in her early 30's, married to fiction writer Bill Franzen, and the mother of an eight-month-old son, Ian.) Interviewing Chast in her neat-as-a-pin condo is like talking to Annie Hall - or worse, luring a rabbit into the open. Chast is amiable, though never garrulous, when asked factual questions. But questions on the ontological side of her work get such mumbled responses as ``I don't know,'' or even, ``Ahhhhh, what was the question again?'' Chast's offbeat humor remains maddeningly out of sight.
``What we saw in Roz's work was that distinctive personality,'' says the New Yorker's Mr. Lorenz. ``But she's also redefined the genre. Most cartoons are illustrated anecdotes - a gag idea with a picture. But Roz's work doesn't have punch lines; they're like little pages torn from her very private diary.''
Indeed, while most cartoons are essentially clever drawings whose captions are secondary, Chast turns the equation around. She often begins with words; in ``Mondo Boxo,'' her most recent book (a fifth is due out this year), Chast has created what she calls ``cartoon short stories.'' Some of her ink-and-watercolor drawings are simply pages of handwritten type; but most are expanded sequences of her boxed triptychs: ``How Clich'es are Made''; ``A Public Service Announcement from the Posture Police''; ``The Sliced Peach Collection''; ``Camp Mandatory Fun''; ``Poets on Strike.''
``I don't always start out with a written idea, but pictures and words are very interrelated for me,'' says Chast. ``If I try to do a piece without drawing it, it's very dull and bad. But if I try to do something without words, ah, that's why painting wasn't the be-all and end-all for me.''
The only child of a high school French teacher, Chast grew up in Flatbush, a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn. While she laughingly refers to her artistic talent as plucked ``from the air,'' she also recalls a childhood spent poring over comic books. ``I liked the ones that weren't too complicated to look at, like Nancy,'' she says. Later, she studied figure drawing at the Art Students League while in high school. But about her academic career, Chast only says, ``High school was like sitting there and learning about the earthworm for 30 minutes. I really didn't want to know that much about the earthworm. But you had to, because there was a test and if you didn't do well on the test, you'd get a bad a grade and that would pull down your average and you wouldn't get into college. By the time I got to college I'd figured out it didn't really matter. But it takes me a long time to figure those things out.''
It's the kind of life-under-the-microscope scrutiny-to-the-point-of-absurdity that characterizes Chast's cartooning today. With her in-house studio, she is able to jot down ideas and sketches ``pretty much all the time.''
She reserves Monday and Tuesday for the final inking of her work. And on Wednesday she travels downtown, lugging a portfolio of a dozen or so cartoons out of which The New Yorker will select ``one or two or maybe none.'' (The New Yorker has first refusal rights of all her cartoons.) What happens when there's no sale? ``Oh yeah, rejection still hurts. On Wednesdays I just make a big bonfire out there,'' she says, nodding at the patio. Another pause. Another laugh.