Roz Chast, across decades worth of her cartoons for The New Yorker as well as her own books, most notably the classic “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” has proved herself to be one of the funniest and most acute observers of modern urban living’s insanities and anxieties. Now she has turned her gaze away from the streets and characters of her beloved New York City and toward her own sleeping mind. Chast’s forthcoming book, “I Must Be Dreaming,” is a collection of cartoons and written observations about her own dreams, others’ ideas about dreams and, broadly speaking, wiggy stuff related to dreams. But Chast is Chast, and the sleeping world she depicts is only somewhat more absurd — and equally as funny and profound — as waking life. “There’s so many different ways to look at dreams,” says Chast, who is 68. “But, for me, the biggest question is probably why do we dream at all?”
I guess when I say “useful,” I’m thinking of catharsis or working out your issues. For me, it’s more making sense of the world around you. I don’t think that’s the same as catharsis. Trying to understand who you are, what are your — I hate to use the word “values.”
Why do you hate the word values? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
You’re talking about death? Woo! Oh! No. What’s that word that you just used? Deaf? Neth?
The idea of death or your own death is too much to even hear about? No, it’s actually kind of obsessive. I don’t know how we stop thinking about it. When you’re 4 or 5 and you learn about it, it doesn’t make any sense at all, the idea that you’re just not here. It’s a kind of nonexistence that we can’t even conceptualize. As I get older, I think about it more and more because it seems less and less abstract. People you know start to die. Not that that means it’s going to happen to me. [Laughs.] Because it’s really not, but still.
I would have thought that working on the book about your parents’ deaths would have made you a little more comfortable with the idea. [Sighs.] Not really. It’s still a giant mystery. It’s something every single person has to deal with. I can’t even say “come to terms with.” Some enlightened swami who’s transcended the binary of being alive and being dead, maybe they have it together about death, but not me.
“Snack”? Just “snack.” “Roz, will you bring ‘snack’ next week?” God, the cut up oranges. It’s horrible. Sometimes there would be fund-raisers, and I remember once I had to flip burgers or something. I had never done this. The night before, I could barely get to sleep. I was having such anxiety about it. I was like, “I know this is going to go so wrong.” I just was not cut out for these things! I could barely drive. These people made me so uncomfortable. All of it: horrible. Sorry, I wish I could be more, Yeah, it was really fun!
Did you like anything about it? Oh, here’s a fun thing: You can drive to the grocery store and put your groceries in your cart and then bring your cart all the way back to your car and then drive home. I had spent so many years lugging grocery bags. Because this was in the old days: There was no DoorDash or whatever. You’d have to go to D’Agostino’s or Fairway and schlep these giant bags of groceries, and your fingers would be stiff from holding them. So driving to the grocery store is still a great source of delight.
Will my own lingering sense that somehow moving to the suburbs represents a personal failing ever go away? You have to repress it. [Laughs.] Deeply repress it. Say you’re doing it for your kids and stuff like that. Also, eventually, when you’re old and gray, maybe you’ll find a crappy one-room apartment in the city like I did. It’s great. So what if the bathroom ceiling fell in? I needed to come back to the city. A lot of it for me has to do with not having to drive. Because not driving when you live in the suburbs, or being a quasi driver — I have a lot of anxiety about it, and when I’m in the city I can go anywhere I want. I feel free. I feel like an actual grown-up.
What is it about driving? Ugh! There’s the car itself: tires falling off, a blow out, a car exploding. One time I was driving and the front hood started rattling and the whole drive I pictured the hood of the car flying up and then my crashing and not only killing myself but killing tons of people. I hate it! I hate changing lanes. I hate merging. I hate trucks. Everything about it is hateful. Also, you’re going so [expletive] fast! A slight miscalculation and it’s disaster.
I know you’re not particularly religious, but do you think your work demonstrates a Jewish sensibility? It’s New York as much as it is Jewish.
Where do you draw that line? Yes, where do you draw that line? But a lot of the people that I draw, they’re in an apartment. It’s like I’m not picturing them on a hiking trail. If they were on a hiking trail, they wouldn’t be very happy about it. They’d be like: “Are you sure we’re still on the trail? Do we have reception here? Did you bring the bug spray? I need more spray. Why did you bring the organic spray? It doesn’t work. Now I know I have picked up that horrible disease that you can get from mosquitoes.”
I know you’re a bit of a hypochondriac. How was the pandemic for you? I learned about sheet-pan cooking, so, in a way, I would say the pandemic was worth it.
Did it stir up any phobias? I mean, it was scary. Some of that fear I’ve probably put on a high shelf in the closet to look at later, if you know what I mean.
But do you need an external project to focus on in order to put your mind at ease? Like what about if you’re just sitting around at home and thinking? Oh, no, that’s not so good. [Laughs.] Trouble ahoy!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed Alok Vaid-Menon about transgender ordinariness, Joyce Carol Oates about immortality and Robert Downey Jr. about life after Marvel.