David Rakoff has accompanied me where most others haven’t: at the gym, in the shower, in bed, while washing dishes or driving. He’s taken long strolls with me and sat beside me on public transport, whispering in my ear and turning me into that most-loathed giddy passenger (ranked only below the olfactory assassins or affectionate couples). With headphones attached, Rakoff and I become the stars in my own silent movie: involuntarily, I express every emotion his punctuations dictate. Listening to Rakoff – on podcasts or reading audiobooks – can be an ostracising (and somewhat obnoxious) private-meets-public exercise. But I dare you to listen to a dying man announce (in character), with an educated, vengeful venom, that he’ll come and ‘knock the dick out of’ a conservative woman’s mouth and try not to laugh aloud, no matter how quiet the 96 tram may be.
Arguably best known for his contributions to This American Life – aired locally on ABC Radio National and mass-consumed via its podcast – Rakoff’s most recent audiobook is a reading of his debut novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. He wrote Love, Dishonor while terminally ill and completed recording mere weeks before he passed away last year, aged 47. It’s incredibly affecting to hear how that recrudescent evil, cancer, punctures Rakoff’s regularly robust intonation.
His familiar voice may be dulled in the recording, but while Love, Dishonor is no less lively than Rakoff’s previous work it is inherently more ambitious. Rakoff’s debut novel is written in rhyming couplets and narrated in anapaestic tetrameter – the same beats as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’. The title itself was initially supposed to read in rhyming couplets as: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die / Cherish, Perish, A Novel By: / David Rakoff.
It was a determined move for a dying man who has previously published three books of heart-clutchingly brilliant, humorous essays: Fraud (2001), Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2005) and Half Empty (2010). Yet unsurprisingly, Rakoff reigns victorious over this self-imposed challenge; Love, Dishonor is full of his signature performative flair and vivacity. In fact, with the grace of a skilled performer bowing to an adoring audience, according to friends and colleagues the act of composing Love, Dishonor came easier to Rakoff than any words before.
Following a cast of characters and their intersecting stories, Love, Dishonor crosses copious borders and eras. It’s a rich tapestry of vignettes featuring archetypes of the ages; Rakoff carefully weaves intimate, individual fragments with the grand epochal moments they constitute. Characters suffer illness, abuse, poverty and homophobia; they live through the Depression and imminent wars. Some are wealthy, others working class; there are faux-hippies and religious zealots. They’re smattered across the map, living in New York, San Francisco and California, from the twentieth-century almost to the current day. Love, Dishonor is a slim volume with an expansive narrative reach.
For the non-poetry reader, this may be an unfamiliar or daunting form; but like playing Double Dutch jump rope in the schoolyard, as Rakoff turns the language, hesitation soon submits to the lure of the beats. Before you know it you are skipping pleasantly to the rhythmic motion and joyously relishing his deviant wordplay. Actually, the flow is so melodious that once I delved in, I found the rhythm hard to shake after the cover was closed and unintentionally composed thoughts in (pathetic) rhyming verse.
This measured pitter-patter may seem gimmicky to some, but Rakoff’s ingenuity and wordsmith smarts stop Love, Dishonor from becoming candy-coloured, greeting card confection. His epiphany-laden observations are complimented with a sardonic, ribald humour; in a few short lines, you’ll find the wry, enlightening commentary of an anthropological poet.
Love, Dishonor can convince the most averse or intimidated readers – even poetry-phobes – via Rakoff’s earnest and absorbing sequences, from sunny Californian childhoods to 50s Mad Men-styled office politics. Take for instance, the scene at Josh and Susan’s wedding where Nathan attended although:
They all knew, it was neither a secret nor mystery
That he and the couple had quite an odd history
Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex.
Josh his best pal once, and Susan his ex.
Forced to make a speech, Nathan spins a heartbroken and resentful fable about a scorpion and a tortoise that touches on trust, companionship and mortality with accessible Seussian flavour. (This insightful sequence was previously recorded and presented on the This American Life episode, ‘Frenemies’.)
Prior to this particularly dramatic speech, Rakoff’s intelligence and audacious self-deprecation is on display as he mocks the very style is he adopting:
Susan’s sister was speaking, a princess in peach.
‘Hello, I am Mindy, and this is my speech.
Susan, you are the best sister plus you’ve always had great comic timing,
So I know you won’t hold it against me when I do my speciality and make my toast in rhyming.
Mindy is one of a host of peripheral females in Love, Dishonor, but Rakoff ’s talent really shines when articulating one of the more fully formed females, core player Helen. Helen’s quotidian trials and tribulations are some of the strongest presented in Love, Dishonor. You can really feel Helen – partially a stand in for the changing attitudes of women during the 50s and 60s but as a conflicted woman more generally.
Blind to her beauty from a young age, Helen’s adolescent sensitivity and inherent insecurities – nurtured by her unwitting, otherwise jovial mother – cultivate an adult life full of denial, loneliness and poor judgement. We hover beside her as she buries her sadness, dreams and disappointments over the years. After affairs of the heart, deep personal longing and very public meltdowns, Helen eventually shirks her fragile sense of self. Standing up to office bullies, Helen is subject to a new dawn and sense of calm with her independent position in the world. We’re right there with her, championing her with a supportive melancholy, once she is dealt the power of insight by the hand of time.
A calm had descended around five a.m.,
Which made her quite immune to the power of Them.
Gets up, quite refreshed, sets the coffee to perk.
For once looking forward to going to work.
She pours out a cup, adds a stream of cold milk
And smiles as it swirls just like taffeta silk.
Less successful is the opening story of Love, Dishonor. Here Rakoff introduces Margaret, an impoverished redhead born into a life of hard work and misery in the slaughterhouses of early-twentieth century Chicago. Margaret’s tale – from hexed birth through violent adolescence – is the weakest in the series. This is not because it’s doused in moroseness; Rakoff does not evade life’s bleak realities for pure fantasy (we later access the painful inner monologue of a stroke victim or Helen’s sing-song sadness upon receiving an abortion.) Nor is Love, Dishonor wholly despondent. Rather Margaret’s contribution is merely the most superfluous in this neat, dense package.
However, Margaret’s story does succeed in cementing the text’s style; it eases the reader into how each sequence will be playfully distilled and perfectly described in the poetic structure. Rakoff brilliant hams up each role for the audio, adding an extra dimension to the characters with performative play – even recording a bonus track where he reads the opening stanzas of Love, Dishonor (about Margaret’s birth) as heavy accented ‘Mindy’. The recording is indicative of Rakoff’s boundless and integral sense of humour, present even when things seemed most dire (video footage of this recording is available on The New York Times website.)
The unique flow of stories, fluxes in character and jumps across time in Love, Dishonor see Rakoff flirt with the farcical but as always, he manages to elevate the world into the realm of the deeply personal and intimate. His extensive and quippy prose has been strongly praised and this particular body of work has seen Rakoff compared to Walt Whitman, Armistead Maupin, Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde and, inevitably, David Sedaris. (Rakoff has credited his career to Sedaris and while from the same creative camp it must be noted: their essays and personalities are not carbon copy copies.)
Love, Dishonor is a work of fiction but the autobiographical undertones are inescapable and rife. As Nora Ephron’s son wrote about her final play, Lucky Guy: ‘it occurred to me that part of what she was trying to do by writing about someone else’s death was to understand her own.’ The obvious author surrogate in Love, Dishonor is Cliff. Like Rakoff, Cliff is a creative and outspoken gay man who eventually succumbs to his battle with a terminal illness (in Cliff’s case, AIDS – a disease Rakoff has lost a number of friends to, and written much about).
Cliff is the heart of Love, Dishonor – we follow him from birth to death, from creative endeavour through various lovers – and his sequences are by far the most poignant. And often most witty because like Rakoff, ‘humor was Cliff’s one remaining recourse.’
My own lachrymose tendencies aside, whether reading or listening, Rakoff ’s description of Cliff ’s life ebbing away is incomparably heartbreaking:
When poetic phrases like ‘eyes, look your last’
Become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast.
A new, fierce attachment to all of this world
Now pierced him, it stabbed like a deity-hurled
Lightning bolt lancing him, sent from above,
Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.
He’d thought himself as uniquely proficient
At seeing, but now that sense felt insufficient.
He wanted to grab, to possesses, to devour
To eat with his eyes, how he needed that power.
It must be noted that, true to form, Rakoff’s recorded reading reaches out and clutches your heart. Clearly so ill – yet professional to the end – Rakoff reads these words choked with emotion and a wheezy breathiness.
The only point Rakoff doesn’t feel present in the print edition of Love, Dishonor is in the enclosed illustrations. With exception of the purposefully comic book-styled ‘Captain Cocksure and Throbbin’ – Cliff’s homoerotic Batman and Robin-style comic strip – the images, by illustrator Seth, detract from the earnestness at the heart of Rakoff’s tale.
Throughout Love, Dishonor, Rakoff describes a photo of young Helen, taken by boisterous Cliff when they were teens. This photo becomes a cornerstone for many characters in the text – it travels through times, places and lives serving as Rakoff’s narrative glue. So when Seth’s animated interpretation of this photo is revealed on the final page as an ill-fitting cartoon caricature, it undermines Rakoff’s intended potency.
Rakoff had wanted to illustrate the book himself, but due to wretched time restraints delegated the task to Seth (per his designer’s suggestion). A New York Times article features an original sketch of Helen by Rakoff – from his mind to his words to his hand. It’s instantly clear that Rakoff ’s sketch was a far more sincere and apt approach to the written content than Seth’s final, included interpretations.
There’s no doubt this would have been a tough gig for Seth, and part of me feels that I’m condemning the living while parading the dead. Something I’ve tried to avoid here because there is a cheapness or performance in that kind of public grief. However, fundamentally, Seth’s illustrations lack the subtly of Rakoff’s words, at even his most flamboyantly cartoonish.
The novel is a slender 114 pages but if you’re familiar with Rakoff’s previous work, it’s rewardingly voluminous. This is less about reading the text closely than seeing Love, Dishonor as the heart-shaped locket hanging from a chain already owned. Because in Love, Dishonor and his later essays, Rakoff’s revelations – particularly those around facing trauma – are articulated with such graceful gall and insight that it feels like there are no longer enough words in the world to do him justice or demonstrate how his words affect an audience.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a review of this novel that doesn’t attest to some kind of personal affiliation with Rakoff’s work. Whether compiled by his friends and colleagues, or those – like me – who have become dependent on his voice and writing, Rakoff’s memoirs demand a certain level of intimacy, and while I admit that this intimacy is hollow and false, it’s also the crowning testament to Rakoff’s writerly ability.
To quote Rakoff, writing this has been like ‘pulling teeth. From my dick.’ A lack of relevant equipment or downstairs chompers aside, anyone who has ever cared about the words they are churning out will understand this sentiment. Attempting to avoid any sense of performative grief often attached to posthumous works – whether by cynical marketing or inherent timing – is complicated. However, Love, Dishonor is a posthumous publication, and whether accessed in audio or written form, the finished product is inevitably framed by his death, inscribing it with bittersweet power.
I have so much to say and a niggling anxiety that nothing will accurately articulate what I feel or want to write about Rakoff and Love, Dishonor. I’m hyperaware that I must avoid gushing as mere idolisation would attribute a sickening sentimentalism or curdled sweetness here. Likewise, being too clinical would verge on morbid, voiceless and dispassionate. Regardless, Rakoff’s work doesn’t heed either of these simplistic takes.
Balancing sizeable doses of melancholy, humour, anger, compassion and observational detachment is always difficult. It also happens to be Rakoff’s speciality. Like Dorothy Parker before him, Rakoff conceded that he found ‘writing extraordinarily difficult and not very pleasurable, though I find having done it very pleasurable’ (see: penile teeth gag), but his finely crafted body of work always reads effortlessly. Love, Dishonor is no exception.
In his great confessional essay ‘The Other Shoe’ – the final essay in his ode to pessimism Half Empty, where he reveals the true state of his health – Rakoff poses:
Most everyone I know is having trouble, some fuzziness that blurs the borders between the micro and the macro, momentarily conflating their own personal problems and the global economic meltdown.
These ‘troubles’, the ‘fuzziness’, the ‘micro and the macro’ is what Rakoff is so gifted at observing and what he so deftly adopts in the fictional world of Love, Dishonor.
Rakoff’s essay ‘All the Time We Have’ is an exploration of grief when his therapist dies. It opens with the line: ‘Many are the tears of grief…that fall for no one but the one who is shedding them.’ Ironically, there are countless lines – just like this one – littered throughout Rakoff’s work that would be far better suited to reviewing Love, Dishonor than any I could muster. Because, after all, he was superbly gifted at striking that difficult balance and wrote with a voice that will continue to keep many company. And for that I’m grateful.
This essay was originally published in Kill Your Darlings, October 2013.