Don’t Get Too Comfortable
First Anchor Books
Paperback US Edition, 2006, $14:00
Kindle US download, $9:99
In some sense, I’ve always preferred essays to novels. I suspect this is partly because as a reader, I like to enter the world the writer creates and get lost there, which, in reality, takes time; and time is a commodity that most of us have little of. I remember the heady days of being a student when there was time to pick up a book during the summer break and read it from cover to cover without feeling any guilt at not being better employed fixing a gutter, re-painting a room, doing the grocery shopping, taking the kids to the park, or any other of the endless adult-orientated diversions that make reading these days a near-impossible task. But collections of essays can be nibbled at rather than consumed in an orgy of lexophagia, and thus fit much easier into busy lives.
Another advantage of the essay as an art form is that for a piece to be succesful, the writer has to be succinct, spare, and able to hold you attention for a short period of time. Unlike novels, there is little room, if any, for padding and waffle. The purple prose of “heaving bosoms” and “dark, mysterious, smoky glances” that stuff up the literary pabulum of ten-a-penny pot-boilers has no place in a well-written article. And given that there are so many books yet so little time, I appreciate any essayist who refuses to waste my time by providing pointless banalities served up with watery words and mundane metaphor.
David Rakoff is, therefore, not a sinner. And in his little collection of 15 compositions in Don’t Get Too Comfortable, there are many examples of how to provide maximum entertainment with minimum verbiage.
Rakoff is not afraid to use adjectives when he thinks it serves a purpose. For example, in his essay entitled Sesion Privada, he recounts his time at a Playboy photo-shoot on the island of Cayo Espanto, three miles off San Pedro in Belize. At one point he talks about his feelings of being uncomfortable at having to spend time in a place of such luxury while knowing that just a few miles away there are people who are living in poverty. Yet he manages to summarize his attitude in just one sentence:
Mine are the tears of the Walrus, bemoaning the wholesale carnage of his little oyster friends as he scoops another bivalve into his voracious, sucking maw.
Just that one phrase “voracious, sucking maw” is elegant enough to justify the price of admission to this book.
His article As It Is In Heaven is a delightful contrast between a flight on one of the final transatlantic trips on the Concorde supersonic plane and an internal trip from Newark Liberty International to Myrtle Beach, Florida, on Hooters Airlines. Despite the apparent differences, he manages to find an underlying similarity between the two events when he observes the boyish, childlike behavior of the male passengers. When the Concorde reaches its cruising altitude of 56,000 feet and speed of Mach 2, he notes how guys are eager to get their pictures taken up at the front of the plane;
They all smile for the cameras, faces like those of children, unashamedly delighted and amazed. The wonder of aviation revived, a full century into its innovation.
This is another vital skill that a good essayist needs to have; the ability to see the commonalities between us as much as the differences. Reading about the rich and famous is pointless and, ultimately, unsatisfying, if we cannot see elements of ourselves in the narrative. That’s why many celebrity biographies rarely succeed; because the use of the pronoun “I” far outweighs the use of “we.” With Rakoff, and others, even if the actual word “we” isn’t used, it is certainly implied.
I Can’t Get It For You Wholesale is a piece about a trip to Paris to cover a fashion show for InStyle magazine. Whilst there, he gets to meet face-to-face with the designer, Karl Lagerfeld, who, in a petulant show of celebrity dismissiveness, takes the opportunity to take a swing at Rakoff by saying to him “What can you write that hasn’t been written already?” Bad move, Karl, because apparently he can write something that has been written already;
…not having undergone his alarming weight loss, and seated on a velvet chair, with is large, doughy rump dominating the miniature furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from the other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How’s that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L?
You can pretty much hear Karl’s head exploding as he read this, and that’s as it should be.
And there is more. Much more. Although he is primarily a humorist, he uses that humor to make moral points. His passion can burst through magnificently, as is evidenced by his treatment of Barbara Bush after her defense of not showing body bags of soldiers who had been killed in Iraq. I’ll let you discover that for yourself, but he leaves you in no doubt as to how he feels.
Rakoff is something of a pessimist, which is made much more apparent in his most recent offering, Half Empty, but it’s a gentle pessimism tempered by an ability to see things that still make life worth living, whether that’s the grinning faces of the businessmen on Concorde or the almost impossible optimism of Patrick Guerriero, the head of the Republican’s “Log Cabin” group. whose aim is to make homosexuality acceptable to everyone in the Grand Old Party.
So if you enjoy witty writing, and have less time than you wish you had, then you can actually get comfortable with this book, despite what the title suggests.