Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: Half Empty

Half EmptyHalf Empty by David Rakoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Unlike cooking... writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food."
My first acquaintance with Rakoff's work was hearing him on "This American Life" recite a hilarious take on William Carlos Williams's "This is Just to Say" in his Bond-villain voice. I thought it was delightful and brilliant, but failed to read any further until this book came along. "Half Empty" gives you the opportunity to tag along and listen to this master pessimist as he winds his way through post-lapsarian America. During the brief hours you spend with this book, Rakoff, alternatively fascinated and appalled, trains his relentless sarcastic searchlight on subjects as diverse as American optimism, the difficulties of writing and cancer, and also visits Southern California, Utah and Walt Disney World's Innoventions Dream Home.

If the book tends towards the darker tonalities of the spectrum, you somehow feel that Rakoff never really turns on the full power of his sarcasm, which is tempered throughout by a compassion for the shared human condition. There is, for one thing, the self-deprecation that includes this description of himself as "possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness," which serves as a pretty accurate approximation of the experience of reading his work. There is also the knowledge of our own mortality and the suspicion that perhaps others have to be perpetual optimists for the temperamentally pessimistic to enjoy certain human achievements: "If one's dreams having to come true was the only referendum on whether they were beautiful, or worth dreaming, well then, no one would wish for anything. And that would be so much sadder." While you may deplore the same things he deplores, you end up hoping the world remains as crazy and nonsensical as it is so that the author can continue to reverse-engineer his delectable writing.

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