Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish—essayist David Rakoff’s 2013 foray into fiction-as-poetry—flies through the twentieth century from stockyards to suburbs, from office parties to weddings and deathbeds, from Chicago to Burbank to San Francisco to Great Neck. Dipping into the lives of Margaret, Hirschl, Sally, Nathan, and Hannah, and lingering longer with Clifford, Helen, Susan, and Josh, we eventually come to understand how all these characters’ lives are, to varying degrees, connected. In turns devastating and hilarious, the characters commit, and commit to, the acts enumerated in the title, with the scales tipped toward some more than others: marry, for instance, doesn’t have much to recommend it, appearing in Helen’s reluctant hope for that elusive “cared-for existence,” and less endearingly in Susan’s insufferable pageantry. But while dishonor and perish seem to dominate, love also makes a strong showing.
Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 novel-in-verse, The Wild Party, a riotous account of a 1920s carousal that syncopates jazzily. But Rakoff’s lines, by contrast, tend toward anapestic tetrameter, a metrical pattern most commonly associated with Dr. Seuss and Clement Clarke Moore; occasionally, the lines break pattern and, one such time, echo radio jingles (one of which appears in Clifford’s childhood: “Takes recipes meager and renders them rich, / If eager for tender cakes, Mother should switch!”). This might seem an odd choice for a story that features rape, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, infidelity, and other difficult subjects. But don’t mistake Rakoff’s meter for comedy or lightheartedness. Whereas iambic pentameter (a seemingly more logical choice) might more closely mimic everyday speech or tie the poem more clearly to epic traditions, anapestic tetrameter resists easy assimilation and positions the text firmly in the realm of artifice. Rakoff continually draws attention to the form—but why?
…filled Clifford with a near-physical needManipulating the real world from a creative distance is a valuable way of experiencing that world; in LDMDCP, artifice, at its best, is a necessary outlet for the outcasts of the world. At the same time, it defines the relationships that bring both joy and heartbreak, such as the affair between Helen and her boss, during which “They walked arm in arm in some crude imitation / Of other real couples en route to the station.” Seeing the potential in this kind of constructed world, Rakoff never lets his readers forget that they are, in fact, reading; this way, readers can become invested in this world without becoming lost in it, remaining aware of the value of the book—as art—itself.
To render as best as he could all he saw
The only desire Clifford had was to draw,
To master the methods the artist commands
That translate a thing from the eye to the hands.
It’s interesting that when discussing Rakoff’s book, some writers shorten the title to Love, and some to Perish; this choice may say more about the writer than about Rakoff or his book. In truth, the title’s words are all inextricably linked; one leads to the others, and none exists without the others. Rakoff perhaps best illustrates this in a particularly moving passage, where Clifford confronts his impending mortality (and which we can perhaps read as Rakoff’s acknowledgment of own his imminent death):
When poetic phrases like “eyes, look your last”This mixture of pleasure and pain isn’t a new idea—but in Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, it’s made new in this moment, and we’re left with Rakoff’s encouragement to love all of this world, to cherish all we can before the inevitable becomes true, and we perish.
Become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast.
A new, fierce attachment to all of this world
Now pierced him, it stabbed like a deity-hurled
Lightning bold lancing him, sent from above,
Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.