David Rakoff doesn’t ask that you be afraid; he just wants you to know that he is. The thrice-published author and frequent This American Life contributor has become not only a chronicler of quirky excesses, he is also perhaps the finest satirist of conspicuous consumption since Thorstein Veblen. Timid and retiring by nature, and a gay Canadian Jew by circumstance, his usual modus operandi is to place himself in some situation that might be expected to frighten, annoy, or alienate him (frequently all three). The results of these experiments are richly rewarding, both because of the humorous culture clashes, but also because Rakoff is a gifted enough writer, and a big enough human being, to shade the experiences with nuance. He has that least fashionable of attributes, a moral compass. (“His parents raised him right,” I often think.) Consequently, he can be as mean as a viper when he wants to be (with hilarious results), but only to the people, places and things that deserve it – usually some exponent or manifestation of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He does not exclude himself from these unsparing analyses, which I like even more. In his previous books Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable, he took us to Miami Beach, fashion shows in Paris, Loch Ness, an airline run by the Hooters restaurant chain, and a spiritual retreat run by action star Steven Seagal. That’s funny already, right?
In his new book Half Empty, the tone is at once more autobiographical and more somber. Though, flashes of the old Rakoff are still there. The most formally ambitious of the pieces, and the one most consonant with the tone of his past work is “A Capacity for Wonder: Three Expeditions”. Laid out as a triptych, the piece traces his immersion in three of America’s “constructed Edens”: Epcot Center, Hollywood and Salt Lake City, poking much fun at their cartoonish artifice before settling, Goldilocks-like, on a porridge more to his liking: Robert Smithson’s 1970 earthwork sculpture “Spiral Jetty”. But, for the most part, the book deals with issues of far greater moment than mere aesthetic distaste and inconvenience. The book’s opening lines, which may rank with those of Moby Dick and The Tale of Two Cities for pithiness, set the tone: “We were so happy. It was miserable.” His acid pen now records observations on September 11, the death of his therapist, his freakishly small size as a kid (4′ 10″ in tenth grade), the metaphysical torture of writing (like Dorothy Parker, he worries those mots justes, which is why we have to wait five years between books), and being fired from a Hollywood movie and replaced by Bronson Pinchot (his revenge came this year when a short film he co-wrote and appeared in won an Oscar). In this book he is more overtly political, more apt to give vent to his anger, and tends more to resort to the cussword over the much-deliberated word-pearl, as formerly was his wont.
In the last piece, we find out where this is all coming from. In “The Other Shoe”, we learn that the author, who’d written about his brushes with cancer in the past, has been revisited by the scourge, this time in a more virulent form. By now, the humor has evaporated almost entirely — the darkness that undergirds his brilliant comedy is exposed and naked and lies there pure for us to contemplate. His anger and his terror are no longer foibles, but the entire pulse of the universe, a raw nerve impervious to consolation. He is in a Vonnegut-like place now. The irony, though, is that the very existence of the book carries with it implied promise. Today we lose a job, can’t write a word, get bad news from the doctor. Tomorrow, as his own life has proven, we win an Oscar, publish a book, the cancer is in remission. And, while Rakoff might like to remind us that the day after tomorrow we will lose another job, get more writer’s block and get sick again….I would like to remind him that the day AFTER the day after tomorrow, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam….
Half Empty was officially released yesterday, and Rakoff is out there hustling it even as we speak. Reason enough, say I, for optimism.