On May 10, 2012, This American Life hosted a live show that was simultaneously broadcast into a selection of movie theaters. The theme, “Invisible Made Visible,” underscored the radio program’s intention to do the one thing that they usually cannot: feature visual acts.
At this show, David Rakoff read—though “read” is too slight a word—an essay about his flail limb. The operation to remove a cancerous tumor behind his collarbone had rendered his left arm “heavy and insensate as a bag of oranges.” After wryly explaining how to accomplish various tasks with one arm, including grating cheese by suspending the grater on a wooden spoon wedged into one’s jeans, he veered into the loss of dancing from his life. He revealed how much comfort and joy he had drawn from dance as recently as a few years ago, when he was already deep in his second battle with cancer, and that he was not sure if he could dance any longer. “I’ve been, frankly, too frightened and too embarrassed to try it, even alone in my apartment,” he confessed.
Audio from portions of this show were replayed frequently on American; the visible had to be converted back into the invisible, and Ira Glass was saddled with the impossible task of describing what happened next:
David Rakoff walks away from the microphone. And just when it seems like he might walk off stage, like he quit, he turns, and turns again. And then raises his right knee, and then places that foot down again, and then traces a half circle on the ground with his left foot. And then he lunges, he arches his back, swings his right arm in an arc from low to high, all totally graceful. And then, he dances.
Rakoff passed away three months later. And just as his dance had to be seen, his last book must be heard. You must experience it as an audiobook. Even the title is nothing until you hear it read aloud. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a long, horizontal blur of abstractions. Compare it to (my best approximation in line breaks and punctuation):
A novel by
Love is a novel entirely in rhyming verse, specifically anapestic tetrameter. The Seussian meter arrives fully formed in one’s head: swift, bouncing and familiar. Coupled with the book’s brevity and presentation—113 pages between picture-book cardboard covers, illustrated by Seth of Lemony Snicket fame—it encourages us to read its interlocking stories as parables. The tales span the last century, and their characters can be seen as representative American archetypes: the turn-of-the-century child factory worker, the secretary caught in casual 1950s misogyny, the young gay man in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. On paper, the rhymes provide stability and ironic distance; they draw attention to themselves as high-concept and artificial, a display of wit and breezy, virtuosic cleverness.
The audiobook is a wholly different creature. Recorded only weeks before his death, Rakoff’s reading does not bend to the meter. He stretches, dips, cantors, considers. He absolutely does not bounce. The versification is so natural that it sounds almost like straight prose. His affected voices turn archetypes into living characters. Mindy, a minor character who exists for less than half a page, is given a lisp, a Long Island accent, and an upward, sashaying inflection. One can hear her painful sincerity, her inordinate pleasure with herself. The voice is so startling and hilarious that Rakoff recorded a bonus track where Mindy reads unrelated sections of the book. (You really, really have not appreciated the book’s title until you hear it read by Mindy.)
Most importantly, the nuance of Rakoff’s reading can lend crushing pathos to what appeared, on the page, to be jokes. In one passage, Clifford, the aforementioned young gay man, arrives in San Francisco from the suburban hell of Burbank, California. He’s greeted by a “ubiquitous river of boys / Fuckable, kissable, dateable, rentable / Faeries and rough trade, or highly presentable.” Several verses of nightclub raunch and theater-queen stereotypes follow, rhyming “paradise” with “public lice” and “mascara” with “dear Frank O’Hara.” Written out, it’s delightful, like an unusually literary dirty limerick. But when Rakoff reads these descriptions, he infuses them with slow, building awe, and Clifford gains the wide-eyed wonder of someone who has found both sexual liberation and his tribe.
Clifford eventually faces the loss of friends, lovers, and his own life to AIDS. Rendered in sing-song rhyme, his degradation—while still tragic—seems darkly comic, overlaid by rage, cynicism, and existential emptiness.
He thought of those two things in life that don’t vary
(Well, thought only glancingly; more was too scary
Inevitable, why even bother to test it,
He’d paid all his taxes, so that left…you guessed it.
The knowledge that Rakoff wrote Clifford’s story at the end of his own long illness is nothing compared to the power of his delivery. Though never pitiable or distracting, Rakoff’s voice was slightly breathy and ragged, and he read “you guessed it” not as a punchline but as a threadbare whisper, a small exhalation of palpable fear. It breaks your heart.
Rakoff was a brilliant writer and a brilliant performer, and his last work necessitates both talents. The physical book is funny and ambitious, and can be flitted through in an hour; the audiobook is a poignant gift. A show. Watch the master dance, one last time.