Author: David Rakoff

2013, Doubleday

Filed Under: Literary, Poetry

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to love this book so much that after receiving the most useless form reply ever to my request for a review copy from Doubleday’s publicity division, I went to my local independent bookstore (support the Harvard Bookstore) and bought it new, fully intending to love every line and then praise it here on Chamber Four.

In case you couldn’t already guess, things just didn’t work out that way. Maybe I set my expectations too high, or David Rakoff did. I love his writing, all of his essays and every piece he ever did for This American Life. I wanted his posthumously published novel in verse to transcend his other work. I wanted a grand finale.

Instead, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is just a finale, one last work from a great writer, which leaves me above all with the impression of how much more he might have done with even just a little more time.

The book is a pastiche of narratives singing the lives of characters representing different periods across 20th century America, from Chicago in the 1920’s to San Francisco in the 1980’s. There’s no central plot; instead there are plots tangentially connected by coincidences.

It feels more than condescending to talk about “potential” with respect to a writer of Rakoff’s caliber, but it’s a word I can’t escape when thinking about this book. There’s so much in it that’s so good, so many surprising turns of language, rhymes so unexpected and so powerful that in retrospect they seem obvious, like the slant rhyme of “forsaken” with “Reagan” in a passage about the AIDS epidemic.

But for every stunning verbal turn, there’s another that falls off the rails, a rhyme that’s there just to fill out the couplet, like this one about women working in a slaughter house returning to their stations, where they package:

Up the loins and the roasts, all the parts of the cattle
And pigs who’d been carved up, like corpses at battle.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with rhyming “cattle” and “battle,” but rather that the couplet offers little, a comparison of corpses to other corpses. The rhyme is the only reason for these lines, and there’s nothing particularly exciting about the rhyme itself.

Then, just pages later, another couplet captures the brutality of the slaughterhouse so effortlessly in a single sentence fragment that I almost can’t believe it comes from the same book:

Above them, hog carcasses, splayed open, red,
Like empty, ribbed, meat overcoats, overhead.

Cramming three stressed syllables together in the second line (“-ty,” “ribbed,” and “meat”) practically forces the reader to gag on the description of gutted pig bodies as “overcoats,” and the repetition of “over” with the rhyme “overhead” completes the image by adding a sense of weight and oppression.

For me, these two brief examples stand for the opposite poles of poetry achieved in Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. Some lines are expertly balanced performances; others are just there to get us through.

The plots feel the same way too; some are gripping, and some are there just to make it seem like the book hangs together. Margaret’s story is coherent, compelling, and sad, but Margaret disappears on page 16 only to resurface once, momentarily, in the memory of an invalid who we never actually see interact with anyone else. Then there’s Cliff, who shares maybe the most poignant moment in the book with his cousin Helen. After that, he’s off to San Francisco, where he never encounters any other character in the book again.

And so I’m stuck thinking about how much “potential” this book has. There’s great material here, and if anyone could have made it work, it was the David Rakoff who wrote Don’t Get Too Comfortable or Half Empty. Maybe with a little bit more time.

So instead of loving this book the way I’d hoped to, I’m just going to be grateful for it, grateful for one last work from a lost talent, grateful that he spent his final months of life crafting wry verses like this one for his fans, and, I can only imagine, for himself:

He thought of those two things in life that don’t vary
(Well, thought only glancingly; more was too scary)
Inevitably, why even bother to test it,
He’d paid all his taxes, so that left… you guessed it.

Similar reads: Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty, all by David Rakoff.