Friday, November 18, 2005

Uncomfortable Laughs

Fraud, by David Rakoff, Read by The Author, Random House Audio, 2001

Don’t Get Too Comfortable, by David Rakoff, Read by The Author, Random House Audio, 2005

Frequent guest on and contributor to NPR’s nearly always fantastic This American Life, David Rakoff has published two books of essays that feature some of this work and two audiobooks featuring work from those books. The first, 2001’s Fraud, consists of unabridged selections from the book, while this year’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable is the full book. It is only my guess, but I think Fraud’s incompleteness stems from some of the book’s better pieces ending up on the radio and there being certain licensing issues. How else can we make sense of the wonderful “Xmas Freud” being left out, documenting Rakoff’s tenure as a department store window display father of modern psychology?

In listening to both books back to back, I found that I enjoyed Fraud a lot less this time around than I did when I first read/listened to it back in 2001. Listening to Don’t Get Too Comfortable only reinforced that feeling. In four years, Rakoff has matured as both an author and a reader. His voice has deepened and grown more subtle as well, the knife-edged nasality in Fraud has grown softer, gentler. And where the first book was at times excruciatingly self-fixated (though this may be an unfair complaint as this facet is implicit in the title), his sophomore effort finds him focussed more on other people’s self indulgence.

And that’s really where Rakoff’s strengths lie. Part of what makes “Xmas Freud” so delicious is that Rakoff becomes a kind of receptacle for the projections of others and his glassed-in display gives him a peculiar and particular window into the psychology of shoppers as they pass. Pieces like “Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth” is a rather depressing tale of his socialist youth group going to a kibbutz and his coming to terms with his homosexuality. Almost every character in this essay is barely a sketch, merely a glint of light in the all-consuming reflection of David Rakoff. Another overly self-absorbed bit, “Lush Life,” is a melancholy reflection on being a non-entity in the literary field when Rakoff worked as a publisher’s assistant.

Like “Xmas Freud” the strongest items include a visit to a Buddhist retreat filled with flowery New Agers and taught by action film hero Steven Seagal and Rakoff’s summary of his few gigs as bit actor in daytime soaps, “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.” Similarly, “Back to the Garden” is his look at outdoor primitive skills and awareness classes and the kinds of peopelw ho sign up for such things.

What these three have in common is Rakoff using his detachment to skewer a more homogenized group, and he does so with flair and elan and a kind of melancholy cruelty that is part rage at his own isolation and disdain for their more hive-mind mentality. His most effective trick is to seduce the reader into believing idealized visions he is sometimes beguiled by, then to bring it all crashing down. Glowing after an interview with the survival camp’s founder, he stands watching a sunset with another camper as that camper drinks herbal tea. After enjoying the gloaming, the man turns to him, holds out the bottle, and says “Rum?”

The newer collection, subtitled The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems, documents our rich Western society’s obsessions with what Rakoff calls “that next undetectable gradation of perfection [that] has stopped being about the thing itself and crossed over into the realm of narcissism so overwhelming as to make the act of masturbation look selfless.”

Despite its lengthy subtitle, Don’t Get Too Comfortable doesn’t really spend the dominant bulk of its time on such things, the above quoted line in one essay, “What is the Sound of One Hand Shopping,” which is specifically about conspicuous consumption. And so when Rakoff flies one of the last flights on the Concorde, an overpriced luxury of speed travel, he pairs this with the distinctly low-brow trip on Hooters Air. To be sure, there are features of the essays unlikely to take place in sub-Saharan Africa, but Rakoff has a broader canvas than merely self-indulgence.

“Privates on Parade,” for instance, finds Rakoff at a penis puppetry show in Manhattan in the immediate week after September 11th, and one can almost hear the genital manipulators saying, a la David Cross, “if we don’t bend our whangs on stage tonight, then the terrorists really will have won!” For similar gyrations of a more mental kind, Rakoff provides us with a brief interview and overview of the spectacularly deranged and misguided, though to some degree good-hearted, Log Cabin Republicans in “Beat Me Daddy.”

Politics, of this obvious kind, is one of Rakoff’s more fish-in-a-barrel topics, such as in the book’s opener “Love it or Leave It” which starts with the near inexplicable sentence, “George W. Bush made me want to be an American citizen.” Of course, he goes on to inform us that as an American citizen, he’d be much less likely a target of the Administration’s thuggish foreign policy. And besides, the Great White North native goes on, “After 22 years it seemed a bit coy to still be playing that Canadian card.”

But the collection’s stand out skewering is almost an afterthought, a totally unnecessary but tastily vicious put down of fashion asshole-dandy Karl Lagerfeld in a piece on the catty world of couture fashion. (See link for visual before reading the below paragraph if you don’t know who Lagerfeld is.) When Lagerfeld dismissively asks of Rakoff, “What can you write that hasn't already been written?” Rakoff answers tidily:

He’s absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try. The only thing I can come up with right now is that Lagerfeld’s powdered white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn’t....seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin over-risen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, overfed, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How’s that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L.?

I nearly had to Heimlich myself after hearing that dispatch in Rakoff’s arch, snide tone, then I backed up the CD and played it six or seven more times. I wanted to stop people around me and force them to listen to this snippet as well. At home, I played it for the wife who only saw its meanness.

Which is, actually, rather one of the secrets to Rakoff’s funnier pieces. To some degree, almost all humor is, Freudianly speaking, suppressed hostility arriving in another form. Why else would shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos last over a decade on television despite featuring almost primarily people falling down, having things drop on them, or getting nailed in the groin? Where are Shakespeare’s gibes from Falstaff or even Hamlet without a tedious pedant as their target? How many jokes beyond simply wordplay can you think of that aren’t explicitly mockery of some person or persons?

And so, when Rakoff turns his guns on himself, unless you know him better than the average reader will, the gags are less howlingly good. We’ve all met over-enthusiastic cranks and wine and/or food snobs, we are to some degree familiar with the “Hi, Mom, lookat me” syndrome that drives people to wave frantically at any television camera in vicinity, and we’ve seen the ghastly effects of vanity in the plastic surgery age. In these cases, familiarity really does breed contempt, but it salves our consciences just a little if we are laughing at these people, instead of outright hating them.

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