Four years ago, I read David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, a book of collected essays. Rakoff, an out gay man, reads like a more curmudgeonly and hyperliterate version of David Sedaris, like the bastard love-child of Sedaris and Chuck Klosterman. Years later, Rakoff’s next book, Half Empty, capitalizes on his dark worldview by offering a series of loosely-connected essays in defense of the notion that pessimism is not all bad.
Half Empty doesn’t offer any central thesis, per se; there’s no stated hypothesis. I assumed, in fact, that it was simply a small collection of previously-written essays which all simply captured the dour, comic voice of a middle-aged, openly-gay Jewish cancer survivor. Oy! The book begins by noting Julie Norem’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, a 2002 book that defends pessimism as a natural—indeed, smart—defense mechanism, by preparing for the worst and causing its practitioners to analyze circumstances and events more carefully than their bubbly, optimistic peers. Rakoff said in an interview on The Daily Show, however, that Half Empty was, in fact, an engineered defense of pessimism. It is “essentially about pessimism and melancholy. All the other less than pleasant to feel emotions that because they are less than pleasant to feel have been more or less stricken from the public discourse but in fact have their uses and even a certain beauty to them”, according to an interview with The Daily Californian.
One important thing to note about Rakoff is that his writing style is, despite his frequent comparison to David Sedaris, far more literate and intellectual1. Consider this passage (a single paragraph) from a section about Salt Lake City, Utah:
It’s a paradoxical feeling to have in the City of the Saints, since the streets of Salt Lake City are a steppe-like 132 feet wide. This breadth was decreed by Brigham Young so that a team of oxen and a covered wagon might be able to turn around in a full circle unimpeded. (An almost identical pronouncement was attributed to Cecil Rhodes when he was overseeing the layout of the city of Bulawayo in Rhodesia. Is this bit of hypertrophic urban planning just a standard issue paleo-Trumpism? One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nineteenth-Century Men with Big Ideas?) The avenues yawn open, human proximity is vanquished, and the nearest people seem alienatingly distant. Such space between souls, such an uninterrupted vista of sky must imbue a populace with a sense of possibility—lebensraum2 and all that jazz. And yet, walking back to the car from the Castle of Chaos, I think of these teenagers, and they couldn’t look more fettered—a world away from the crowds at the Gatewall Mall, a bi-level outdoor shopping center constructed to look like an Umbrian hill town (if Umbrian hill towns had California Pizza Kitchens). If landscape shapes character, then it is never more clear than here, where I encountered the closest thing resembling a crowd in Salt Lake City. People, many of them in Halloween costumes, stroll eight abreast like one of Brigham Young’s mythic team of oxen, never moving faster than the speed of cold honey. I have never been in a public space in America where a sense of how to walk among others was so completely and confoundingly absent. People stop abruptly, cut across lanes, and generally meander as blissfully unaware as cows in Delhi.
Look at the key components of this paragraph: invocation of a “paradox”; a reference to a short-lived African state and its magnate founder; a sarcastic invocation of a pop-psychology idea with a popular historical reference; a hyphenated neologism skewering a modern businessman; a pretentious and controversial use of a German phrase; an invocation of an underrecognized geographical region of Italy; a reference to historical/mythical Mormon culture; and a reference to the protected status of bovine mammals in Hindu India. That’s a lot of references for a single paragraph, and yet it’s not a rare occurrence for Rakoff, who likes to couch so much of his relatively mundane subject matter with references and allusions to things which are—in fairness—much more interesting.
In a turn of events so twistedly appropriate it could not have been planned, Rakoff—a survivor of Hodkins lymphoma in his 20s—was diagnosed with a malignant in his neck during the writing of the book. This revelation and its aftermath comprises the lengthy ending segment at the end of Half Empty, and ultimately one could disregard the entirety of the book except the opening chapter (wherein Rakoff introduces the pessimism-as-defense-mechanism hypothesis) and the last, and the resulting questions to the reader are positively delicious.
First, is it any more appropriate for a author promoting pessimism to be diagnosed with cancer while writing it? Never mind that the actual diagnosis of a malignant tumor (a very slight chance, according to his doctor, who assured him it was likely benign) seems to validate Rakoff’s downcast worldview; imagine for a moment that Rakoff was not already a cancer survivor, and that he had considered his symptoms (pain in the arm, which he noticed after working out) a mild and minor ailment rather than the possible harbinger of a potentially-fatal ailment? Would he still be alive at the time of this writing? And how does a dominantly-negative worldview affect the treatment and recovery of a two-time cancer patient, in a medicinal niche all-too-often dominated by a tired clutch of slogans about “hope”? I’ve talked about this notion before with a friend (in particular, a friend whose father has since been diagnosed with multiple myeloma) who disparages the emphasis on “hope” as a shortcut which avoids the necessary long and hard slog through invasive and terrible treatment3, and which undercuts the pragmatism necessary for making decisions which afflicted with a potentially-fatal ailment.
As for the middle chapters of the book, they constitute typical Rakoff fare: they are excellent self-contained pieces, though their inclusion as stepping stones in a book governed by an “organizing principle” (Rakoff’s phrase) isn’t necessarily so much a body of argument as it is a typical body of work by Rakoff. This isn’t surprising: how does one justify one’s own worldview via journalism without, essentially, sounding as one normally does? It is impossible for familiar readers of Rakoff separate argument from author.
For all that, of course, Rakoff remains an impressive journalist, whose breadth of knowledge—and the balls to invoke such knowledge in his work—seems to surpass that of the aforementioned Chuck Klosterman, and without the sniveling pop-culture apologism. Rakoff is an old-school cynic, just old enough to be curmudgeonly and old-fashioned without going Andy Rooney on us. It’s a niche too often unfulfilled between the aged network journalism group and the up-and-coming MTV generation of cultural descriptivists that dominate journalism today.
- This is not a criticism of Sedaris, mind you; the styles are simply different.[↩]
- Note: lebensraum is German for “living space”, and the concept was an important ideology for Nation Socialism. I doubt that Rakoff is invoking Godwin’s Law w.r.t. Mormons here, since he doesn’t seem the sort, but rather implying that this planned community seems to realize that elbow room is important.[↩]
- For more on cancer in general, see the excellent The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee[↩]