Last week I saw Sarah Vowell on Stephen Colbert, there to publicize Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel the posthumous book by the brilliantly acidic, but always self-aware David Rakoff. I interviewed Rakoff for The Montreal Mirror in 2010. He was here to visit the city of his birth, and to talk about Half Empty, the last book he lived to see published. This was the second time I’d interviewed him. He was a difficult interview, not because he wasn’t forthcoming, but because as the son of psychiatrist, he never stopped asking me questions. Listening back to the first interview there was way too much about me and too little about him. To protect against this, I scrawled at the top of my notebook “DON’T TALK TOO MUCH!!!” Needless to say he noticed it and teased me about the whole time. But I did manage to get him to talk.
David’s Rakoff’s latest collection is not as negative as it claims
David Rakoff’s book of essays Half Empty skewers optimism, utopian thinking, and positive psychology. It champions the less popular emotions, like anxiety and grief. Whoever wrote the back cover promises “his sharp observations and humourist’s flair for the absurd will have you positively revelling in the power of negativity. On the cover there’s a starburst sticker that reads: WARNING!!! No Inspirational Life Lessons will Be Found in These Pages.
But right now, eating brunch with Rakoff at Beauty’s, it seems like a bit of false advertising. Rakoff is hilarious as ever in Half Empty. He reminisces about group think at the turn of the millennia, his brief and ill-fated acting career, and serves as an acidic tour guide through Disneyland. Midway through writing this book, however, Rakoff discovered he had a malignant tumour in his shoulder. He’s currently undergoing chemotherapy, and there’s a possibility he’ll lose his left arm.
Considering this, he’s surprisingly upbeat as he wolfs down a normal sized plate of eggs. “My left arm is not the world’s best left arm right now, but it’s still attached. So that’s good.” I ask him for the prognosis. “I don’t know. I’m in this chemo right now that does seem to be working, or by my estimate seems to be working. But there are things where I’m as good a judge as anybody. Like, I can now sleep on my side, which I couldn’t do for a year and a half. At the top of my breath, in the left lung, there’s less pressure. So that would suggest it’s getting smaller. But is it getting smaller in the way my surgeon needs it to get smaller? I’m not a surgeon or an MRI machine, so I don’t know. I hope. I’d love to keep it. It’s a roller coaster I have to say. But it’s okay. It’s better than it’s been.”
When I point out that his relaxed attitude seems, frankly, a little inspiring, Rakoff explains that the starburst warning on the cover was mostly just a compromise with his publisher. It got him off the hook for the standard trite non-fiction subtitle. “It’s always a true story of three nouns. Money, madness, or murder. Or how the blank is blanking the blank. How the socialists are ruining America, or how the right wing is fucking you up the ass while you sleep.”
In fact, his book is not meant to advocate negative thinking as a way of life for everyone. “One size doesn’t fit all,” he says, happy to take the middle road here. “Some people are just going to be that way. Some people aren’t. It’s like having brown eyes. But I would advocate for a more realist thinking and more detail oriented thinking. It’s very nice to think in those sunny broad strokes. But eventually you do have to have detailed thinking. And optimism doesn’t really make room for that. Not on any level and not cognitively. That’s not a value judgment. That’s literally the way the brain works in an optimistic mode. It opens up, it widens, and it dilates. Which is great, but you’ll be fucked if you’re only on dilated mode.”
And being anxious, Rakoff insists, doesn’t necessarily mean being unhappy.
“I couldn’t tease apart those threads in the first chapter, about how one could be happy and anxious. And then by the end of the book I understood. When they test for sadness, anxiety may be something that they’re testing for, but it’s not the same thing. Anxiety is a sensitization to the world at large, but it’s not the same thing as fear. True fear is completely unproductive in that it leads you nowhere. At best it can evoke a kind of evolutionary flight response. So you don’t end up as somebody’s dinner. But if you’re actually not in the jungle, and you can’t fly—if the predator is in your own body, it’s useless.”
Maybe not the most feel good life lesson, but a valuable one, whatever the cover says.