Half Empty is the hot new book by hot Hebraic homosexualist writer David Rakoff (no relation). The title, which arguably needs a hyphen, refers, he told us in radio interviews, to the book’s exegesis of the power of defensive pessimism, a concept introduced to him by Julie Norem in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.
A sparkling, immediately useful concept, brought to us by just the right neurotic source. Spoiler alert, though: It makes for a better radio segment than it does a book in part because it’s barely in the book. It’s discussed over a few pages and that’s about it.
I complain endlessly about the apparently completely absent editing of modern books. Not just typography and copy-editing, marginally less bad here than usually found in U.S. publishing. (It’s set in Adobe Garamond, a typeface that book designer Michael Collica
probably got for free with Photoshop. Some typos, e.g., errant space. Use of only two f-ligatures suggests this is yet another book typeset on Windows, a self-defeating exercise, or Quark, a masochistic one.)
Here I am talking about an editor, or more likely editrix, who cracks the whip and demands Rakoff stop being so parenthetical, discursive, tangential, self-indulgent.
No such editor was involved.
What he’s got here are pages and pages of parenthetical asides – one of them without a closing parenthesis, so in principle the balance of the book from that point is nothing but aside. I don’t know how to read these asides, which, if rationally handled by a real designer, would be structured as sidenotes. I suppose I could borrow the audiobook, narrated by the author, from the library, and learn at the feet of the master, but is there anyone who enjoys listening to him? Especially on This American Life, where my memory is dominated by his somehow gerrymandering the punchline of every segment to be “I like men”? (Surely it was only one segment, but it looms large.)
Is this an autobiography?
HalfEmpty isn’t actually about anything. It has a couple of essays repurposed from magazine articles. (For more of those, read his previous book. I would love to see what rights he gave away in his original magazine contracts. And actually, I think it’s just one such essay: Reportage from a racy “exotic erotic” expo in New York City, such reportage being a barren and dispiriting as the event itself. Why waste pages on it?) Maybe the rest of the book is meant as autobiography.
But the structure isn’t that of a conventional autobiography, nor is it a fractured Mendelbrotian narrative of the sort that crashed and burned in I’m Not There. We are given a chapter on being tiny as a child, another on how much he hated being a child given that his true mental age from childhood to present has actually been 47 to 53 (p. 30), and of course the really big chapter at the end, the one you probably read about or heard described in other radio interviews. One more spoiler alert: He’s got cancer again.
Is that why he wrote an autobiography? Then why isn’t it better?
If, pace Edmund White, the function of gay literature is to induce the reader to nod and mutter “yes,” I should have been saying yes a whole lot here even though it isn’t fiction. He’s a gay intellectual from Toronto. He’s Jewish, and grew up happy, and is actually from here, but there should be enough commonality for me to, as the theorists might put it, identify with the work. It’s the implications that disturb me, even though only one of them is also my problem.
Not all sad sacks are lovable. Rakoff has gone on at length about missing the boat. The opening chapter describes how many boats he missed during the 1990s dot-com era. Then there’s the story he likes to retell about his first Madonna concert. (It was actually just a performance in a bar back when she still wore ragamuffin outfits stretched across baby fat.) Any trend he latches on to will die, and anything he is sure will die thrives.
Charlie Brown has dignity; what David Rakoff has are bad instincts and bad luck. Aren’t those communicable? Isn’t he going to get failure dust all over us? I guess not, because it is Rakoff who plays runner-up to his friend Sedaris in the pantheon of American humorist writers. (But watch out for that step between first and second. It’s a lulu!)
The gay-male life of the mind isn’t much of a life. Is it? (Isn’t it?)
Are Rakoff and I of the last generation that couldn’t understand and fled from sports, hated anything physical, and spent all day reading, and as a result have a gamut of physical abilities that range from walking down the street without faceplanting to, I guess, typing on an iPhone?
HalfEmpty is open about the divorce between mind and body granted early on by the Supreme Court of Rakoff. The implications of this divorce for his current cancer diagnosis go unexplored in interviews I’ve heard and in the book. I don’t want to emphasize that; I just want to say it is exasperating to find another middle-aged homosexualist who can talk a blue streak and that’s about it.
All we are is clever and funny. I’d like us to be more useful. Really: Why do you think I spend every possible second I can around bobsledders and firemen? It’s a few hours a year tops, but all of those guys, and even my dear friends those wheelchair athletes, give me a glimpse into a world where men do things instead of copy-edit essays about them.
Earlier generations are like Rakoff’s and mine. What are younger generations like? I have concerns there, particularly the complete effacement of any form of masculinity among gay boys.
But Rakoff’s book is what I have in front of me. What he’s doing is reminding me of a characteristic of our generation that worked out well for us as a brute survival mechanism growing up (read Daniel Harris). There was even a market for it in the elite logocentric classes. But, with our aging bodies, this generational character trait has begun to show us just how much our bodies have held us back. Because we really didn’t have any! We weren’t Futurama heads inside bell jars. We were brains inside bell jars. Is this any way to live?
It is the way we did live and are living. Do we know any other way?
But who else is going to write our gay books?
Now you see our conundrum.
I very much wanted to learn more about why Rakoff took out American citizenship. Of course I read the article about it, but there is still a part of me, not a well-hidden or bashful part, that views a Canadian who leaves the country as suspect and one who becomes an American as somebody with a lot of explaining to do. I hold these feelings even though leaving the country is the only viable option for anyone with any combination of skill, expertise, taste, rigour, and ambition. But swearing to defend the Constitution? Becoming legally American so you can become a legal New Yorker? Doesn’t that give us a lot to talk about?
Wouldn’t that be a great book by David Rakoff, published of course by a foreign-owned imprint right here in Toronto?