David Rakoff: Half Empty

17Apr11

Years ago I caught sight of a set of Curious George parodies, along the lines of Curious George and the Electric Fence. I only really glanced at it, because in all honesty I don’t enjoy that kind of humour. Childhood is ideally a brief window of innocence where the idea that it’s a decent world – and maybe even one we can improve with effort – is nurtured, and there are decades later on to find out life isn’t loaded with happy endings, and that random misfortune strikes. Contrary to feeling misled, I’ve always found it useful to be able to tap into a period of time I believed wholeheartedly in that more innocent view of the world, and I’ve never been able to appreciate seeing the trappings of childhood dressed in crude humour and cynicism.

It was with a little trepidation I examined the cover of the new David Rakoff book of essays, Half Empty. A rifle emerging from the bushes is about to take out a cute bunny, and a bright yellow bubble assures us “No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages!” Well, fine. I understand marketing is a requirement. But Rakoff is more than cynical and witty. In an age of Twitter wisdom (“The one worth crying over will never make you cry!”) it’s refreshing to luxuriate in a well-written essay, and Rakoff is articulate and thoughtful, with elements of a certain reserve and a certain moral framework. While he’s certainly witty and cautious (more than cynical), his voice gives frequent nods to the kind of world we could have, if it were infused with heavier doses of thoughtfulness. In the essay on his battle with cancer, he notes “It is the duty of society to take care of its individuals, plain and simple.” And here it might be fair to say we also see an acknowledgement of the Canada we used to know – the one that believed quite firmly in picking people up when they fall, and the one we knew before politics became about as subtle as a hard-knuckle fistfight.

Here is Rakoff on the cliché of the artist: “Let us pause herewith for a moment of honesty about that old chestnut about art and artists being immune to the petty concerns of morality, or the need to be kind, or fair, or in fact anything other than obliteratingly self-involved.  It has always seemed little more than a rationalization for goatish, flesh-pressing painters, writers, and musicians to skip out on checks, borrow but not return things, sire but not take care of children, and mostly to cheat on, mooch off of, or sock long-suffering wives and girlfriends.”  And later, “the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.” What might seem conservative at first glance isn’t a disdain for artists, just a disdain for treating each other without consideration. He could drop unnecessary flourishes (“herewith”), but occasional minor distractions aside, Rakoff is among the best Canadian essay writers. Individual essay titles like “The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” are as good as novel titles by other writers. He’s perhaps even more interesting for being a Canadian transplanted to the States while retaining certain Canadian values that may or may not be on their way to extinction. Highly recommended.

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