David Rakoff

In today’s NYT, Margalit Fox’s obit for David Rakoff:

David Rakoff, 47, Comic Essayist, Dies

David Rakoff, a prizewinning humorist whose mordant, neurotic essays examined everything from his surreal stint portraying Sigmund Freud in a Christmastime shop window display to his all-too-real battles with cancer, died on Thursday in Manhattan.

His death was announced by his mother, Gina Shochat-Rakoff. Mr. Rakoff’s cancer had first appeared when he was 22 and recently reappeared as a tumor in his left shoulder.

The return of his cancer, and the possibility that his arm and shoulder would have to be amputated, were the subjects of the concluding essay in Mr. Rakoff’s most recent collection, “Half Empty” (2010), a darkly comic paean to negativity.

I’ve been sitting on two postings about this book since it came out. Not easy to write about.

For his incisive wit and keen eye for the preposterous, Mr. Rakoff (pronounced RACK-off) was often likened to the essayist David Sedaris, a mentor and close friend. Like Mr. Sedaris, he was a frequent contributor to “This American Life,” broadcast on public radio.

Mr. Rakoff’s print essays appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Details, Salon, Slate and elsewhere. They formed the meat of his three published collections, which, besides “Half Empty,” include “Fraud” (2001), in which he chronicled, among other things, his brief appearance on a television soap opera (Mr. Rakoff was also an actor); and “Don’t Get Too Comfortable” (2005), which, as its jacket proclaims, skewers the American demographic beleaguered by “the never-ending quest for artisanal olive oil and other first world problems.”

A self-described gay Jewish Canadian transplant to New York City, Mr. Rakoff was a social anthropologist of postmodern life.

… While some critics faulted Mr. Rakoff’s writing as overly aphoristic, many praised his singular style, which combined an amiable dyspepsia with an almost palpable undercurrent of melancholy.

A characteristic passage:

In his essay “Christmas Freud,” Mr. Rakoff tells of volunteering to spend several weeks as Freud in a tableau vivant, part of the 1996 holiday window displays at Barneys New York, the luxury emporium. (He knew the store’s creative director.)

Gawked at by passers-by, the display included little more at first than Mr. Rakoff, a chair and an analyst’s couch. That, he soon determined, would not do.

“I’ve decided to start seeing patients,” he wrote. “I’m simply not man enough to sit exposed in a window doing nothing; it’s too humiliating and too boring.” Manhattan being Manhattan, they came in droves; many spoke to the good doctor about Christmastime anxiety.

One such “patient,” a writer for the British newspaper The Independent, described Mr. Rakoff’s analytical spiel as follows:

“ ‘Let’s look at the name. Father Christmas,’ ” he says, emphatically. “ ‘It’s obviously an Oedipal fantasy. Santa Claus is supposed to come down a chimney, a simulacrum for a vagina. Then he leaves presents, and children are always anxious about what kind. So it’s really all about parents engaged in sex, an act that necessarily excludes their kids.’ ”

Having survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a young man,

When Mr. Rakoff’s cancer returned and he risked amputation, he ruminated on life without his arm and shoulder. It was not so much the physical loss that worried him, he said, but something far larger.

“There are other extrafunctional and noncosmetic realities I have to consider,” Mr. Rakoff wrote in “Another Shoe,” his essay about the tumor. “How does someone without a left arm know he’s having a heart attack, for example?”

Also from Half Empty, a wonderful bit about writer’s block:

And so another day fails to meet its promise and has spun out into procrasturbatory entropy.

(nice portmanteau). And from his first book:

[Culture and Family Institute director Robert] Knight is ready with rebuttals to anything I bring up, whether it’s the statement that, according to the latest studies, homosexuality is probably more a matter of chromosomes (“junk science”), or that gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than straight men (“There is a higher preponderance of interest in sex with youth, as evidenced by the constant themes in gay publications: boys boys boys”).

Typically, Knight uses the word homosexual rather than gay, all the better to emphasize that this is not an identity but an illness, a reversible pathological behavior. Yet Knight’s emphasis isn’t so much on the behavior itself as on its host of negative results: depression, rampant intravenous drug use (“It’s well documented”), and ravaged, incontinent sphincters (“Older gays, y’know, have to wear diapers, because they’ve ruined the rectum”). All of these are the wages of the homosexual’s lifelong devotion to that one defining, until recently criminalized sexual act: sodomy.  “Sodomy is their rallying cry,” he says.

Well, it sure is someone’s rallying cry. A lot of our hour-long conversation is taken up with talking about anal sex.  I have never spoken so much about anal sex in my life.

“The anus is not a receptacle, okay” Knight says. “Using is as an entrance instead of an exit ramp is one of the most unhealthy things you can do with your body, and yet we’re pretending that this is some sort of an identity. Like you’re born with a need to put your penis down a guy’s butt…”

… Knight displays an obsession with the mechanics of sodomy —simultaneously mesmerized and sickened by the tumescent, pistoning images of it that must loop through his head on a near-constant basis…

To come: Rakoff on his relationship to pork and shellfish.


One Response to “David Rakoff”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    I see that I posted a bit from Half Empty a while back, in “David Rakoff on commercial portmanteaus”, here.

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