Friday, August 10, 2012

Goodbye, David Rakoff. And Thanks.

What a strange afternoon this has been, as I work on my book, in between cooking and other more mundane tasks. Strange because after reading a headline earlier in the day that literally made me gasp and raise my hand to my mouth, I find myself musing on a man I never met in person. I find myself having to wipe clear my eyeglasses and dry my eyes repeatedly. I’m not typically one to cry at the news of a passing celebrity, though I may at times feel appreciation for their work. Perhaps it has something to do with a sense of kinship with someone who spent his working days trying to net words, like rare butterflies, and pin them to the page just so.

As an aspiring writer, it has at times been hard to know how to feel about David Rakoff. His was the sort of talent that would inspire me to want to write more and better, while simultaneously arousing the feeling that I should simply ‘hang up my pen’, as he had already said so many important things about being human, and said them so well, with such honesty, sharpness, humor, and eloquence.  I thought I had a highly developed vocabulary until I read “Don’t Get Too Comfortable”. I remember at a certain point while reading the book making a list of words to look up--some I knew, and some I didn’t, and others that were familiar but that he used in new ways that made me wonder about fine shades of meaning I might have missed. In an interview on Fresh Air, Rakoff actually apologized for using the same phrase, “care-worn”, more than once. But I think that even without the fancy lexicon, Rakoff would have been remarkable for his unflinching honesty, his self-awareness, his willingness to laugh at the absurdity of the world, without ignoring its pain. One could see in his work evidence of a man who had engaged in a profound examination of life and his place in it, its light and its darkness, almost to the point of neurosis.

Almost. He is saved from such neurosis, I think, by not allowing this examination to become an exercise in futile rumination, even when there are no clear answers to his questions. Even when the answers he does find aren’t particularly pretty or hopeful, he is trenchant, displaying a remarkable capacity for insight.  He uses that stunning mind and the tools of his trade--that stellar vocabulary--to craft works of heartbreaking beauty, offering comfort from the storm in unexpected ways.

An article on the NPR website today spoke of him being an “angry and passionate” writer. I was compelled to comment that I disagree with that characterization. Rakoff could definitely sharpen his tongue when he needed to, but I never saw him do it unnecessarily or without provocation or justification in his writing. And when he did choose to, you’d see some of the most beautiful, impressive arrows take flight. I could never offer a “tsk tsk!” to this man in the face of language and imagery that was unique, and often jaw-droppingly brilliant.  Despite his soft, dreamy voice and mild manner, it was clear that one would do well never to piss off David Rakoff. Take this gem:

“All of the designers I have met up to this point have been very nice, although upon being introduced to Karl Lagerfeld, he looks me up and down and dismisses me with the not super-kind, ‘What can you write that hasn't been written already?’ He's absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try. The only thing I can come up with right now is that Lagerfeld's powdered white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn't.  Also, not yet having undergone his alarming weight loss and seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin over-risen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, overfed, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How's that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L.?”

New and groundbreaking, indeed. What I would give to have seen Lagerfeld’s face upon reading this description. So, yes, biting and clever when necessary, but angry? I don’t think so. Quite the contrary. In most of Rakoff’s work (Lagerfeld aside) I hear a gentleness of spirit, a deep humanity that rings loud and clear. Even when he scolds us, his heart is in the right place. He will scold himself, as well. Anger is the province of fools who rail against what is, expecting life to bend to their will. I have to believe Rakoff was no such man. How else could he write that, with regard to his cancer, he is not moved to ask “why me?”, because the only proper answer is “Well, why not you?”  

The cancer that ultimately took Rakoff’s life was not a secret, not a surprise to anyone familiar with his work. As Fresh Air’s Terry Gross put it, he wrote about his illness “with a perfect balance of wit and gravity”. He spoke in that interview of the many ways in which his life has been privileged; with general baseline good health (apart from the cancer), access to excellent medical care, he didn’t have to work in a shoe factory or live next to a toxic waste dump, then said “you can’t win all the contests, and then lose at one contest and then say ‘why am I not winning this contest as well?’”

That’s not angry--that’s as real, and as realistic as it gets. Though I didn’t ever meet him in person, I met something of David Rakoff in his books and his readings, his interviews and his pieces on This American Life. All that is enough to really feel this loss, to cry tears as real as the man himself. You can add that to the list of his privileges--to be able in the course of your life’s work to touch people you'll never meet, to affect them, to make them think, to make them laugh, and to make them feel your absence, keenly, once you are gone.

Thank you, David.

To hear Mr Rakoff in action, look here:

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