Generally, I love books of essays. Really, it’s one of my favorite genres. But there are times, such as incredibly busy pre-holiday weeks when television is calling to me from the next room in all its prime time fall-programming glory, when it’s tough to get through them. Books of essays, that is. Consequently, I don’t think I gave “Half Empty” a fair shake this week.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. David Rakoff has an incredibly sharp wit, the kind of negative attitude I appreciate and a more or less unparalleled vocabulary (the closest I’ve seen is David Foster Wallace, who had a thing for multisyllabic words. And I mean multisyllabic). Many of Rakoff’s essays cover topics true to my heart—New York, work, aspirations, cynicism. He skewers the plot of “Rent,” tells how he insulted the now-deceased author of “The First Wives Club” whilst she was in a coma, and gives a poignant-without-being-cheesy account of his second (yes, second) encounter with cancer. He draws a distinction between being negative for negativity’s sake and simply being pessimistic to the point of preparedness (he defends both). There’s even an essay about porn.
So I don’t know why it was so hard for me to get into this book. It wasn’t quite long enough, or quick enough; it wasn’t post-beer train reading, due to the aforementioned vocabulary and his propensity for run-on sentences (something I can relate to). The essays also at times felt too unrelated, like a series of magazine columns plopped together in a book. Except for a bevy of Jewish humor, not much was consistent throughout.
And yet, despite finding myself apathetically underwhelmed by “Half Empty”, I still intend to read “Fraud,” the only Rakoff book remaining to me. And why? Because no matter how grumpy or tired or grumpily tired I found myself last week, this one paragraph, where Rakoff is ending things with his therapist, who then confesses that he will miss their sessions, is so ridiculously dead-on that I suspect perhaps this man and I are actually kindred spirits and my averse reaction to the book has everything to do with a sincere jealousy over his ability to word my darkest interior monologues. Enjoy.
“(Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness—a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest Self which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of a kitchen chair—then this confirmation that you have triumphed once again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person you’d hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow sideshow-barker variation on “adorable,” even though you’d been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one … well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least.)
See what I mean?
At the end of the day, I think the reason I didn’t love “Half Empty” had everything to do with me: It really did feel a lot like reading my own thoughts, and typically so much of reading (books, at least) is an attempt on my part to escape them. I can hardly begrudge Rakoff his inability to help me cast off the doldrums of everyday life, especially when the book’s title is an indisputable reference to negative thinking. But I can grumpily give it two paper cuts; since he’s a true pessimist, Rakoff would have probably expected no different.
TITLE: “Half Empty“
AUTHOR: David Rakoff
PAGES: 224 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Don’t Get Too Comfortable“, “Fraud“
SORTA LIKE: Dry” meets “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
FIRST LINE: “We were so happy. It was miserable.”