A Supposed Fraud

27Jun10

Is there something better than a remarkable essay?  I’m reading two collections at the moment. The first, Fraud by David Rakoff, is a witty and intelligent collection. One of my favourites so far describes a three week gig as Freud in a department store window, at Christmastime. Some of the humour includes comments reportedly made by  people looking at him: “He just turned the page, is he allowed to do that?” And then, suddenly, Rakoff gives us this: “… this time of year, with the aching sadness and loneliness that seems to imbue everything. Where is that perfect object, that old flame, that secret love, that eludes us? Unfindable. Unpurchasable.”

The other collection is A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, and it also reminds me good writing is based on good observations. The supposedly fun thing Wallace does is go on a cruise for a magazine, where he notes one hugely outgoing person “looks like he’s constantly posing for a photograph nobody is taking.” In his cabin, he’s oddly impressed with the vacuum toilet, “a concussive suction so awesomely powerful that it’s both scary and strangely comforting — your waste seems less removed than hurled from you.”

And yet in the same essay Wallace hangs over the railing and observes people departing the ship: “I am an American tourist … large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing, and greedy: the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.”

Of course, Wallace was none of these things (except despairing) precisely because he thought about them. It’s enough to leave me thinking about the personality behind great essays: sharp-eyed, thoughtful, melancholy, more inclined to hang back and watch. Or is it the personality of a writer, period? Regardless, the world doesn’t seem designed for them, and increasingly less so. Wallace seems to literally need to retreat to his cabin at times, and disturbingly, I can relate. Reading these books makes me tempted to try and write an essay of my own about the personality of the writer, and leaves me wondering if the wholehearted acceptance of the experience — not just the humour but the sadness too — makes for the best essay writing.

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One Response to “A Supposed Fraud”

  1. Dear Alex,
    I see you are a fan of David Rakoff and his new book HALF EMPTY comes out this fall. If you are interested in an advance reading copy please send your contact information to acsparks@randomhouse.com.
    Thanks,
    Adrienne


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