“SO WHAT’S THIS?” someone might ask when they pick up your copy of David Rakoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, and you’ll say, “It’s a novel told in rhyming couplets,” and they’ll say, “Rhyming what?” and you’ll say, “Couplets,” and that might be the end of that because, come on, couplets are not the dominant literary form of our time.
Their loss: Rakoff’s book is a piece of epic Americana by a born-and-raised Canadian; it’s what Jonathan Franzen hoped to achieve with Freedom, but it’s shorter, better (I’m biased, of course) and packed with more emotion, and, because it’s Rakoff, beautifully light. It’s a cross-generational novel, peopled with a cast of Americans from around the country, beginning in the blood-streaked abattoirs of Chicago and taking in San Francisco in the roiling 1970s, and a particularly tragic version of New York. It’s a novel of interdependence, but the links between characters are formed with delicate connective tissue.
David, up to this point, was better known for his essay collections: Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty. “Was” because, on August 9 of last year, at the age of 47, he died of cancer, an illness that had followed him since he brushed up against Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 22. (He used to downplay it as “dilettante cancer.”) I knew David well—we met while I was working at Saturday Night in Toronto in 1998, and we kept in touch when I moved to the U.K. in 2000—but we didn’t talk often about the process behind the new book. I imagined him rotating each of these couplets in his mind when he could, perfecting their shape, imbuing them with meaning and setting them in place. He was working against the clock, and I hate that he’s gone, but there is small solace in the fact that he was bloody-minded enough in his final months to give these rhyming pages a wholeness and embed in their rhythm and hilarity the wisdom I will miss from our conversations.
For an inveterate gift-giver who was always making art for friends, this is a gift for the broad group of admirers that has built up since Fraud and David’s many appearances on NPR’s This American Life. With his previous books, he’d reenergized the form of the comic essay, so why not take on the novel in verse? For couplet doubters, look at what David does with winter in Chicago: “Deep February, a bone-cracking freeze/The ice, like a scythe, felled the boughs from the trees/The blood of the stockyards froze into pink ponds/And etched the glass panes with its crystalline fronds.” And if you think he’s a little too Robert Frost there, a few pages later there’s raunch from the San Francisco section, including a rhyme in which a gay illustrator taunts a Christian crusader from the Deep South (“You’re through and through Dixie and I, San Francisco/Despite a shared fondness we both have for Crisco”). All this revelling in pre-AIDS San Francisco life gives way to the realities of the disease. The banality of illness was a subject David became increasingly familiar with during his own fights with cancer. He was one of the only people I’ve known who could craft a perfect joke while lining it with lead-weight seriousness. What is it like to live with illness? “‘Make sure,’ ‘be prepared,’ plan out every endeavor/Like a scout on the stupidest camping trip ever.”
Now when I think of David, I think of the couplet that rests at the heart of the book: “We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether/To kiss or to wound, we still must come together.” When you’re next in New York, take yourself to the Ramble in Central Park, not far from Belvedere Castle. That couplet is inscribed on a bench there that was crowdfunded by friends and fans. Don’t be fooled by the ingenuity and bounce of the rhymes, his sense of humour or the way he writes about America. To be human, for David, was to connect. The funniest poem you read this year might also be your favourite novel and might also, in a not altogether unlikely corollary, break your heart.
Craig Taylor’s most recent book, Londoners, is an oral history of his adopted city.