The melancholic comic

New Yorker David Rakoff spins a brand of hilarious, acerbic 'non-humor' all his own.

By BEN NAPARSTEK
November 14, 2005 09:55
david rakoff 88

david rakoff 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems By David Rakoff Doubleday 240pp., $22.95 David Rakoff wants to set the record straight - he's not the doppelganger of David Sedaris. Sure, both writers are gay, reedy-voiced, neurasthenic New Yorkers who made their names as raconteurs on US public radio. Both are irreconcilable misfits, ill-at-ease with society and in their own skin. Yet as his second collection of humorous essays Don't Get Too Comfortable makes plain, Rakoff's brand of comedy is less frenetic and more melancholic. "David Sedaris has become a touchstone. Short of writing some grim tale of babies being dispatched into a wood-chipper, you're going to be compared to David." Rakoff is also more reluctant to mine his personal life than Sedaris. While neither write about sex, Rakoff, unlike Sedaris, doesn't use his family as material. Yet while his foibles and vulnerabilities are his greatest asset in his essays, Rakoff insists that the self-revelation is deceptive. "It's like when a nuclear plant sends a bloom of steam into the atmosphere, but it's not lethal. It's a highly controlled form of revelation. There's never a point where I go, 'Oh, I can't believe I let that out of the bag.'" Unlike Sedaris, an unabashed confabulator, Rakoff is adamant that he never plays loose with the truth. He has the handicap of being a freelance journalist; his stories often begin as articles for magazines with rigorous fact-checking departments. "That's just a nightmare and a headache if you start making things up." Rakoff's 2001 debut Fraud (Doubleday) was published to near-unanimous acclaim. But one peppery review in The New York Times continues to baffle him. The reviewer criticized Rakoff for failing to offer any insights that Sophocles and Freud didn't provide before him. "I've got to give it to Freud and Sophocles - they're pretty great." Bizarrely, the review made no mention of Rakoff's humor. "It's as if they sent someone to review my seafood restaurant and she never mentioned my fish." Still, Rakoff is reluctant to see himself as a humorist. "I'm not what I would perceive to be a humorist. I don't write little casuals about comic premises. I'd just say I'm a writer." While caustic wit has become his trademark, Rakoff is careful his barbs are never gratuitously cruel. "Many dark, inappropriate jokes bubble forth from the id, but I'd never put them down on paper." When Rakoff does take aim, it's because his targets deserve the spleen directed at them. Responding to Barbara Bush's musings on Good Morning America in 2003: "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that," Rakoff seethes: "Stupid f**king cow." He concedes that his second book is angrier than Fraud. "The pitch is lower. The new book is much more about the world at large than my little quirks and habits." As a child, Rakoff honed his wit to compensate for his minute physical stature. "I was tiny until 17, so I had to develop other aspects of myself." The same was true of Rakoff as an adult who, he says, "never projected the kind of physical presence that could be its own calling card. I've had to develop other aspects to make myself be seen." Rakoff was raised in Canada and went to college in New York ("the great love of my life") where he has lived ever since. "I did have some vague, nebulous dreams of a creative life in New York, marked by interesting friends with terrible problems. That's certainly happened." After a decade in publishing, Rakoff turned to full-time freelance writing. "I was feeling very bitter about facilitating other people's creative work while being too scared of failure to try any of my own." For the painfully self-conscious Rakoff, a notebook serves as an armor by which to shield himself from the world. "The notebook is a wonderful prop when you have to walk through a room unaccompanied or sit in a restaurant alone. A notebook fulfills some of the functions that a cigarette fulfills. It's something to do with your hands while you get over what you feel while in other peoples' gaze." Although much of Rakoff's work is originally written for radio, this doesn't affect the style of his essays. "When I re-write something for the book, it's quite rapidly different. I can be tangential. Reading something on the page is like being presented with a set of plants. You can look all over the set of plants at the same time and quickly scan your eyes back from where you came from. When you're talking to someone on the radio, you're leading them along a string through the dark. You keep them on that string. So when I do public readings, the pieces are invariably shortened and made more sprightly." Rakoff finds writing difficult - often painfully, skull-claspingly so. As he writes: "Writing is like pulling teeth. From my dick." Now he puts it in less heightened terms: "Writing has to be bad before it can be good, but we're not wired to sit quietly with something that's not presentable. I don't ever achieve flow because I'm hyper-conscious of how I don't want it to be and overly invested in how I do want it to be. And I want it to be that way immediately!"

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