A Romantic's primer: Rakoff's Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish
By Wendy Bourgeois
The story, a multigenerational, mostly middle class novel of manners, unfolds through vignettes, one character at a time. Some are more finely drawn than others. Margaret, born in the stockyards at the turn of the century, and Helen, seduced by her boss, are particular standouts, and reinforce Rakoff’s ruminations on the damage inflicted by sexual shame, a theme which becomes essential as the story moves towards its main set piece, the story of Cliff, a gay artist dying in the AIDS epidemic.
It cannot escape anyone’s notice while reading the passages describing Cliff’s death that Rakoff wrote this as he was dying of cancer, and also that this novel in verse, for Christ’s sake, ought to be maudlin and a disgusting gimmick. It isn’t. His previous books of prose essays display a mastery of syntax bordering on neurosis, and sometimes made the writing a touch sterile. Here, though, the speed of the tetrameter, and the absurdity, safeguard squishy human tenderness against too much wit and polish. Because the rhymes regularly and sometimes spectacularly fail just like the characters do, when they succeed you feel like cheering or bursting into tears. It would be easy, I think, to assume that the nearness of death allowed Rakoff finally to, you know, let go into some kind of death-muse fever dream, but nothing’s truly careless here. It feels easy, though—unlike most contemporary poetry—and operatic—unlike most contemporary fiction.
In one of my favorite moments, when Cliff has left his lonely childhood and experiences San Francisco’s pre-AIDS golden era, he says, “An insight that always cut keen as a knife/whose wound was pure pleasure; Clifford loved, loved his life.” Knife and life are pretty blunt objects as rhyming pairs go. Loud, and clunky, and perfectly matched as a couple of ceramic bookends, they force you back into the line, where “cut keen” moves exactly as quickly as the idea, and the “wound of pure pleasure” does all of the sex and death stuff it’s supposed to do without being too gross, but still a little gross, as in: expressive of the right kind of physicality, and also funny. Then, after the semi-colon in the middle of the line, comes Cliff’s full name, now Clifford, the extra syllable throwing off the pace and also suddenly formal in this attention grabbing, mother-means-business tone. This kind of movement elevates pathos through music rather than image, which sneaks in a heartier dose of emotional excess than most ironic American readers, myself included, will normally tolerate.
Finally, the two loves there at the end of the line tell us that one day we will be sick or old and pissed that we didn’t have more complicated fun because we refused to admit how much pleasure and beauty motivates us. Some people will say getting off on pleasure and beauty is sick and unproductive, but David Rakoff wanted us to know the joys of deviance before its gets too late.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. Her previous Reading Lines column was about John Ashbery and images of God.