I’m sad to say that I first learned of David Rakoff a few months into my This American Life obsession, when there was an entire episode dedicated to his memory. He had just recently died, at the too-young age of 47, after a 20-and-change-year-long battle with cancer.
I had never heard anyone quite like him before, except maybe host Ira Glass himself, and certainly David Sedaris. A writer like Rakoff probably couldn’t exist without Sedaris paving the way a little bit, but Rakoff had his own beautiful, unique voice, and modern literature and pop culture are all the more rich with both of their delicate tenors and dangerously sharp wits in it.
Hearing Rakoff speak on This American Life, hearing his soft voice breathe life into effortlessly graceful, hilarious stories (while simultaneously gasping for air, depressingly enough), I immediately thought that my entire English language upbringing and discovery had somehow been incomplete up until that point. He had this command of language that was slightly nerdier, slightly more specific, and definitely more elitist than Sedaris, which is probably why he wasn’t as famous. Everybody loves Sedaris. Rakoff made it a little harder on himself. Niche works fine, too.
Fraud is his first collection of essays, a truly inspirational and loosely thematically connected bunch of descriptive tales and jarring complaints about the world. Rakoff is a furious narrator of his own life; he is at once curious enough to, for example, climb a mountain with a complete stranger or attend a retreat with Steven Seagal, but not comfortable enough to actually enjoy more than 25% of the experience. He’s a judgmental guy, and one who makes his judgements so accurately that you have to laugh, even if they get a bit mean. He is in his element in New York City, like so many self-deprecating writers, and knows that with discomfort comes humor and wisdom, which is perhaps why he chose to remove himself from his island bubble every once in awhile. Writing topics don’t just jump out at you on Manhattan ALL the time, after all.
There were times, while reading this book, where I felt such a connection to this lonely, acerbic man. I identified with his cynicism, applauded his incredible use of the English language, and felt grateful that, at some point, he had experience those feelings that all frustrated and temporarily uninspired writers experience. For lack of a better term, he is a kindred spirit. I aspire to his level of eloquence. And yet there were other times when I didn’t want to connect with him. I don’t want to fall into the habit of finding the negative in an experience for the sake of making a joke or pulling myself above it. I’ve done it before, as many have, and I imagine it doesn’t make for the most consistent of happinesses.
And so I recognize Rakoff’s flaws, if I can even call them that, and I take them in stride, and I still call him an inspiration. Without his knack for complaint, we wouldn’t have his work, and without his work, we wouldn’t know these lengths that the English language could stretch to:
p. 11 // “I realize I have a child’s concept of mountains. I assume they just rise up suddenly out of the flat ground, like breasts. (I also happen to have a child’s concept of breasts.)”
p. 34 // “[Christmas] was precisely why so many of us had moved to the city, so that we, too, could walk through our antiseptic corporate lobbies, gaze misanthropically at the wreaths adorning the travertine walls, the Christmas tree surrounded with gift-wrapped empty boxes that fooled nobody (and often in the corner, as a concession to our Hebrew colleagues, a cheap tin menorah), and in the fluorescent-lit sadness of it all feel something approaching … depth?”
This man was a treasure. An honest, masterful, complicated treasure. Rest in peace.