As celebratory book launches go, it was a bittersweet affair; but that was probably to be expected. On Wednesday evening, about 300 fans crammed into the fourth-floor performance space at Barnes & Noble in New York City’s Union Square to hear a reading of David Rakoff’s new book, a work written completely in verse entitled Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel. A line of about 100 others snaked down the stairs, hoping to get a seat.
Rakoff was not there, at least not in person. If you know anything about him, you likely know he was a gifted Canadian-born raconteur and essayist who died from cancer last August at the age of 47. You may also know that he finished writing Love, Dishonor about five weeks before he died.
That harsh fact hangs over the work, reframes it even; for the time being, Rakoff’s death is the pre-eminent aspect of its publication. In part, the book seems like a testament to the belief that artists are so dedicated to their work that they’d rather die than stop creating. But if Love, Dishonor joins a motley group of works that have gone into the world after the deaths of their creators, the back story of its creation adds a rich layer to the way people will read it. It’s certainly affecting the book’s promotion. On Wednesday, dozens of Rakoff’s friends, including some semi-boldface names, honoured him with a 2½-hour reading of the whole book, a daisy-chain of character sketches which together relates an epic and intimate tale of the 20th-century.
There were literary agents and editors, wags and writers, and a pledge drive’s worth of NPR celebrities: Sarah Vowell, Henry Alford, Augusten Burroughs, Lisa Birnbach, Melissa Bank, and Ira Glass, the host of the radio show This American Life, to which Rakoff had regularly contributed.
The creative director Simon Doonan, who once hired Rakoff to play Sigmund Freud in a Barney’s department store window at Christmastime, had the crowd in stitches with a ribald section involving a gay comic book superhero.
And, actually, Rakoff himself read, too. A wry performer with marvelous tonal control, he’d recorded the audio book last year in four two-hour sessions that left him wracked, wrapping it 12 days before he died. So the crowd heard some of that – a section about an artist named Clifford dying of AIDS – and became silent and still.
“It was breathtakingly heartbreaking,” said Rory Evans, a writer and friend of Rakoff’s who was in the audience. “He sounded so weak and sick and like someone you simply want to hug, love, and tuck into bed.”
It would have been heartbreaking even without that audio. In the past few weeks, Rakoff and Love, Dishonor have been treated to a flurry of press unlike any he’d ever experienced while he was alive, including his first ever front-page Sunday feature in The New York Times Arts & Leisure. “It renews my sense of loss,” said Bill Thomas, his long-time editor. “The attention it’s garnering, and the praise it’s garnering, makes it the very definition of bittersweet.”
Much of the attention, of course, comes from the unusual conditions under which it was created. Written largely over the final 18 months or so of his life, between gruelling chemotherapy sessions, MRI scans, and other taxing therapies, Love, Dishonor comes into the world irreversibly branded as David Rakoff’s Last Book.
Which means that, like other posthumous works, Love, Dishonor comes freighted with a rare burden. These are works overlaid with the dark facts of their creation, like the 2008 movie The Dark Knight, the filming of which reportedly sent Heath Ledger into such a dark state that he never regained his equilibrium before dying of a prescription drug overdose; the recent Nora Ephron Broadway play Lucky Guy, about the journalist Mike McAlary, who died in 1998, of which her son Jacob Bernstein wrote in a piece for The New York Times Magazine: “It occurred to me that part of what she was trying to do by writing about someone else’s death was to understand her own;” the Broadway musical Rent, whose creator Jonathan Larson died on the kitchen floor of his SoHo apartment only hours before the show’s scheduled first off-Broadway preview.
Rakoff would hate the comparison, mind you: In one of his best known essays, Isn’t It Romantic? from his 2010 collection Half Empty, he gleefully skewers the mythology of the artist forgoing everything for his or her art. (He skewers Rent, too.)
But part of the power of Love, Dishonor comes from Rakoff’s personal experience with his illness. “In some ways, that filter gave him insights that he might not otherwise have had,” says his sister Ruth.
“The whole business of Clifford dying – one of the difficulties of the human condition is that we can only actually know something after we experience it ourselves, and while Davey was extremely adept at seeing and interpreting and living through other people’s experiences, there are certain aspects of the writing that he could only have gotten to given his situation.”
Mind you, Rakoff, whose Half Empty concludes with an essay about discovering cancer (which killed him two years later), quipped in a 2011 interview: “I’ll do a lot for a good chapter, but I’d rather not have done this.”
But one of the mysteries of Love, Dishonor’s creation is that, as he wrote in Half Empty, true fear usually left him “frozen; amotivated and stunned.” And yet when he knew he was dying, Rakoff applied himself to his work with rare focus. In his final months, while finishing the novel, he also wrote and performed a piece about his illness – complete with a solo dance – for an episode of This American Life that was staged live and beamed to dozens of movie theatres around North America in May, 2012. (A video of that performance, posted to YouTube shortly after his death, has been seen more than 175,000 times.)
“I think he made choices in life, and one of those choices was that he was a writer,” says Ruth. “He sacrificed other things in life on the altar of his art, and so, knowing he was dying, I’m sure he felt that was something he needed to do – be the ultimate writer.”
It’s impossible now, reading Love, Dishonor less than a year after he died, to see it without that frame, to experience it cleanly. Might it ever be read as it was intended to, without that overlay?
“My belief,” says Bill Thomas, “is that five, 10, 20 years from now, when somebody who never heard of David Rakoff comes across the book, reads that passage [about Clifford dying], and its beauty and power and poignancy,” he pauses, collects his thoughts, starts again: “I think that’s what David knew, that the book he had written expressed in this beautiful way his aesthetic vision, and his moral vision of the world.”