Saturday, April 12, 2014

P&PC Correspondent Colleen Coyne Reviews David Rakoff's Novel-in-Verse "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish"

Colleen Coyne (pictured here) lives outside of Boston in Ashland, Massachusetts, where she teaches writing and works as a freelance editor. She is the author of Girls Mistaken for Ghosts (forthcoming from dancing girl press), and her work has appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cream City Review, Handsome, alice blue, Women's Studies Quarterly, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. Read her P&PC review of Jess Walter's novel The Financial Lives of the Poets here.

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.

At 113 pages, the book is relatively slim, and the characters, while compelling, aren’t as fully developed as they would be in a more substantial tome. This doesn’t detract from the book’s power, though; rather, Rakoff (pictured here) skillfully chooses to sustain selected scenes. He builds, by accretion, settings and contexts for characters’ significant moments, cataloguing the contents of a closet, the trappings of the nouveau riche, the decadence of the Castro, the gore of the slaughterhouse. Some characters are given their moment and are never heard from again; others reappear until their stories are done. Most compelling, at least to this reader, is Helen, who, by the end, we understand has a more significant role in the story than even she realized; she is “The Girl Who No One Wanted” and “The Girl Who Ruined Christmas,” a flickering candle of loneliness, but she’s also the glimmer of kindness and hope, the “present and vivid, alive” reminder of “what’s still to come.”

Perhaps Rakoff was familiar with 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?

In The Wild Party, the main players are “far too busy living first-hand / For books. / Books!” Real life—not the representation thereof—is the only thing that matters. But in LDMDCP, reproductions of famous artwork:
…filled Clifford with a near-physical need
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. 
Manipulating 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.

Sadly, this world lost Rakoff in 2012, when he died at 47, after his cancer, which had been in remission for two decades, reappeared. Published posthumously, LDMDCP may not be his greatest work, nor his most personal, but it’s possible to think of it as an unassuming but potent guide to living. Whatever kind of life we’re given—painful, joyous, unpredictable—Rakoff believes we can forge a path with “No secrets, no longing, no desperate hoping / Just reach out and grab from a world cracked wide open.” This may seem too glib or easy, but Rakoff rejects overt clich├ęs, assigning that kind of thinking to characters like Susan (who renames herself Sloan, then Shulamit, as part of an unending identity crisis) who offers the fortune-cookie wisdom of “After all, it’s the journey, not the destination.” Rakoff doesn’t want us to admire Susan for this weak effort, but rather acknowledge that we need to push ourselves beyond these bumper-sticker slogans and ask ourselves the harder questions, which might lead to more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, answers.

One question: what’s the difference between die and perish? Seemingly they are synonyms, and in a title with only six words, each must do a substantial amount of work to warrant a spot. In many ways, perish is more dire; though death is certainly a dire situation, perish suggests particularly desperate circumstances, wherein endings aren’t neat and tidy but rather fraught with destruction and damage. Beyond the obvious act of dying, we perish in our relationships, in our own self-doubt, in the ephemerality—and perhaps unreliability—of memory. Josh embodies this loss in a particularly Proustian moment when going through his father’s long-boxed-up things redirects him to a childhood scene—“He was there through some magical olfactory feat!”—but this distance from the memory, and from his father, also renders him “irrevocably lost.” It’s worth noting that perish has etymological connections to “to be shipwrecked, ruined, damned”—scenarios in which all is, irrevocably, lost.

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”
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. 
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.

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