Wednesday, August 14, 2013

One Last Gift

ISBN-10: 038553521X ISBN-13: 9780385535212 Published: Doubleday, 07/16/2013 Pages: 128 Language: English
When David Rakoff died a little more than a year ago, the public outpouring of grief was enormous and often-- given the literate company Rakoff kept-- devastatingly articulate. For an example, I would suggest reading Linda Holmes' magnificent essay on NPR's blog (Rakoff was known to many for his frequent inclusion in the popular radio program This American Life). Holmes begins her essay: 

"Being funny, unashamedly angry, and deeply human is something a large number of people try and a relatively small number of people do well. One of the people I've always thought did it well was David Rakoff, who has died so very much too young..." 

Rakoff's new, posthumously released book Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was hurriedly finished by the author in his final months. Thankfully, the book feels like a beautiful capstone to a short life rather than a rushed footnote. Rakoff has written in both verse and prose, but Love... is almost entirely composed of rhymed couplets. Rakoff's playful style might be jarring at first-- I've heard it called Seussian-- to those readers expecting existential grimness. However, part of Rakoff's genius lies in how he contrasts the whimsical form with the deeply sad content. Another surprising aspect of the book is its structure: around a dozen characters are given their own "stories," which sometimes intersect in odd or touching ways. The setting of the book spans an entire century but can be read in one long sitting-- that's how I read it, anyway, and the characters are still bouncing around my brain. 

Rakoff pulls off the rare feat-- as Linda Holmes suggested-- of creating satire that is caustic and funny without ridiculing its characters or dipping into pointless misanthropy. The reason his stories are so sad is because his characters are worth caring about. I must return to Holmes' essay at this point:  

"Rakoff was a practitioner of a kind of writing that can sometimes seem to have become ubiquitous somewhere between Usenet and Twitter, because everyone thinks they can do it: blistering, unforgiving, yes-I-said-it cultural criticism, dark and mad. But with Rakoff, everything bounced off a deeply human way of looking at other people — after all, it's only that humanity that makes your anger and your melancholy mean anything. Who cares if you can't dance if you wouldn't want to because hey, the hell with dancing? Who cares whether you despair for your society if you don't like anybody anyway?" 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the outstanding presentation of the book. It's a beautiful object designed by Chip Kidd and filled with gorgeous illustrations by a cartoonist credited only as "Seth." It seems only fitting to end with a quote from the book, this one from a scene where the protagonist is delivering a wedding toast and elaborates on the famous fable of the scorpion and the tortoise: 

"I think what it means is that central to living
A that is good is a life that's forgiving.
We're creatures of contact, regardless of whether
to kiss or to wound, we still must come together.
Like in Annie Hall, we endure twists and torsions
For food we don't like, and in such tiny portions!
But, like hating a food but still asking for more
It beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.
So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well
It's essentially saying, 'Please, come pierce my shell.'"

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