Even though he was a fairly prolific writer and frequent guest of This American Life, I didn’t know of David Rakoff until the publication of his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It won numerous well-deserved accolades (I loved it), but the book was obviously bittersweet for longtime Rakoff fans; he died of cancer shortly after completing the manuscript.
The Uncollected David Rakoff gives readers such as myself — people who weren’t too familiar with his oeuvre to begin with — a chance to get acquainted with his work. Unlike his other essay collections, all of which center around a theme, this collection draws from various parts of his career: there’s one fiction story, a handful of travel writings, commentary on literature and pop culture, and few interview transcripts. A number of autobiographical pieces are in there, including several writings about cancer; he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of twenty-two, the treatments of which probably caused the more aggressive form of cancer that he died from life twenty-five years later. Rounding out the collection is the full text of Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.
When Rakoff shines, he shines. There are a number of pleasant surprises sprinkled throughout the book, including a few travel essays that began with a publisher going, “Hey, let’s send this clueless city guy to __ to do __ and see what happens!” These in particular gave me wanderlust something fierce. His commentary on his illness is also poignant; he always maintained a realist outlook.
But without a unifying theme holding everything together, the collection at times felt too scattershot for my liking. It’s also a lot to process all at once; a lot of essays were included in this collection, and several were largely forgettable, which diminished the power of the stronger works.
I also go back and forth questioning the decision to include transcripts for a few radio programs: two from Fresh Air interviews with Terry Gross, and two from This American Life. On one hand, regarding the Fresh Air interviews, it was nice to see his unedited responses to direct questions. On the other hand, you’re reading a transcript of an interview that was shaped by Terry Gross, not by David Rakoff (skillfully shaped by a meeting of two sharp minds, granted, but a Gross production nonetheless).
I pulled up the media for the Fresh Air and This American Life entries — all are available to listen to online — because I figured: why read a transcript when I can actually hear Rakoff speak? In pulling up the audio, I also came across the video of the performance of “Stiff as a Board, Light as a Feather,” which is the last entry in the collection before Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. Watch this, then think about how different it would have been to only read the transcript of this. It’s just not the same; that powerful ending is impossible to capture via transcript:
Which brings me back to that scattershot feeling. The book has nonfiction essays of various topics, fiction (a short story towards the beginning and the full text of Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish at the end), transcripts of interviews, transcripts of performances…what exactly does this book want to be? Had it been culled down and thematically refined a lot more, it would have been a much stronger collection.
The Uncollected David Rakoff was released in October 2015 by Anchor Books.