Thursday, October 07, 2010

David Rakoff, Half Empty, 2010.

I love Rakoff’s writing. I love the way he uses words, the way his delightfully snarky and snide humour enchant the reader and hide Rakoff’s love of the truth he’s writing about, the way I laugh, the way I want to read slowly so that the book will last longer, the way I hear the words in his soft voice and careful inflections. I love Rakoff’s writing, and that makes it hard to write about it any sort of balanced way.

In ten essays, Rakoff jumps from the trouble with Rent and cupcakes to the disturbing cultural insistence that people remain positive even in extreme adversity, with trips to Epcott, Hollywood, and Utah for good measure. His eye is so attuned to both the quotidian and the extraordinary, and he describes it concisely and movingly: he captures experiences in words in ways that inspire me to write (ironically, given the example I’m about to share). Consider this depiction of what the process of writing is like:
It isn't that I don't sympathize with the lassitude. I understand it all too well. Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one's least attractive, that sometimes it's just easier not to do anything. Writing--I can really only speak to writing here--always, always starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food. So truly, if you're already getting laid and have managed to fall in with an attractive and like-minded group without the added indignity of diving face-first into a cesspool every single time you sit down to work, no one understands better than I do why one might not bother. (55)

His metaphors and similes are staggering. He makes an entrepreneur at the Exotic Erotic Ball convention come alive with associations that are at once cliché and fresh: “Decades ago, he would have been a grizzled huckster, an old merchant seaman with fading Polynesian tattoos and missing teeth, producing from his rucksack a cork-stoppered bottle of brown glass. He would whisper of the mysterious contents, a vague pedigree of ground horn, dried animal penis, and the pulverized carapaces of rare insects.”

Rakoff doesn’t write about himself, but he’s present in every essay with an unflinching honesty that makes me want to invite him for dinner (and worry about living up to his standards for both the food and the décor). Describing his response and reaction to his therapist’s death, Rakoff invites one into both the therapy and the hospice room: the emotions are vivid and revealing, necessary and clarifying. My best way of making sense of it is to suggest that Rakoff uses his own life as a prism to reveal the colours that seemed to just be life, refracting the beam to make details come alive so that deeper truths about ourselves can be understood.

Perhaps most helpful and most challenging is the final essay, ‘Another Shoe,’ in which he shares something of his experience with his recent (and ongoing) bout with cancer. He remembers a woman, Brooklyn Mom, with whom he once volunteered, and describes the process of coming to understand what she chose to share about her experience with cancer; he remembers an awkward childhood experience that informs his feelings in the present; of his sense of a lack of larger lessons in the midst of this all-consuming experience. In both his references to movies and books and in the interactions with friends, family, and his own self, Rakoff depicts bleakness and the slight hope that makes continuing possible.

I’m hoping for the next collection of essays. I’m sure I’ll be as effusive again.

No comments: