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Superlatives fail. When talking about David Rakoff's work, one searches for them and comes up wanting. Rakoff's writing is deliciously, deliriously funny. (See what I mean?) Not to be confused with the bulldozer humor of a Howard Stern or Don Imus, Rakoff makes us laugh at our own humanity. And his. Our human frailties, vanities and the oddities of our culture.
Stretching to describe him, other writers often search for odd combinations that might serve to illustrate. Writing in Salon magazine earlier this year, Brett Leveridge said that, based on the writing, he had expected "the bastard son of Addison DeWitt and Fran Lebowitz" when he met David Rakoff. In a cover quote for Rakoff's book Fraud, Amy Bloom offered an eye-crossing set of possible combinations: "The love child of S.J. Perelman and Elaine May, the by-blow of Benchley and Parker without his bay window and her bad habits."
The fact is, of course and obviously, David Rakoff is unique. The Toronto-born New Yorker moves and speaks with elegance and considerable thought. What you see is a portrait of studied cool who looks at the world with arms akimbo: the sneer is silent. Sitting across a table from him, or reading his work, you get a more clear picture. As the title of his book of essays hints, Rakoff is not always as comfortable in his skin as that studied cool would portray. David Rakoff is most definitely not a fraud, but sometimes he feels, as we all occasionally do, very much an alien even in familiar surroundings.
Reading Fraud, you sometimes get the feeling that Rakoff sets out looking for people to send a sneer at and ends up, instead, pulling the very best out of everyone he encounters. As Rakoff tells us about sightseeing in Scotland or coming of age on a Kibbutz in Israel or climbing a mountain in New England, we laugh with him as he laughs at himself. But the real gold in Fraud is Rakoff's searing, shimmering wit: often dry, sometimes subtle, sometimes off-color, but never off-key.
A frequent contributor to national Public Radio's This American Life, Rakoff, 37, has acted off-Broadway and written for Salon, GQ, Harper's Bazaar and Outside.
Linda Richards: Why Fraud?
David Rakoff: Hmmm. It was the word that was hovering around in my head when I compiled the things. It seemed to be the overriding word that was out there. I had thought about titles that were somewhat more antic like Smart Mouth or The Jig Is Up or something like that -- and they certainly got part of it -- but Fraud is somewhat more open-ended as a word. It's not exclusively funny, it's not exclusively sad, it's not exclusively an indictment.
I don't know that your writing is often compared to David Sedaris', but you get spoken of in the same breath sometimes. And I find your work very different.
It's extremely different. But David has become the standard bearer for a kind of humorous essay. I think we're also spoken of in the same breath because we're very good friends and we drop into the same venues, primarily a show called This American Life which airs on public radio in the United States. And, you know, David is one of my best friends and I've done plays with him for years and stuff. So, I think that's natural. But I also think that David has become such a huge success and deservedly so: I don't know anybody who is actually funnier or more naturally talented and I certainly don't know anybody who works harder or even as hard. But he's become the standard bearer much in the way that Dorothy Parker used to be the standard bearer inasmuch as generally people aren't super conversant with Dorothy Parker anymore [but they might know] David. And rightfully so. He's really the greatest and a mensch to boot. He's just a great guy.
And you're both such funny guys.
There you go. And we're both gay. And we both found ourselves in New York, although he's now in Paris. He's funnier than I am.
Not funnier, I think. Different. Darker.
He's darker, but I'm sadder.
Maybe you're more introspective. More searching.
Hmmmm. It's strange, we're not that similar in talent but it's interesting because, in terms of working in theater together, despite the fact that we have somewhat different sensibilities, we're a very good match, in that way.
I think both of you have a sort of subtle sense of humor. Subtle might not be the right word: but not that "ha-ha" belly-laugh type of humor.
The plays themselves are not subtle. Have you ever seen one?
The term to use would be fuckin' hilarious.
His sister [Amy Sedaris] is unspeakably funny and talented. She's extraordinary. And she just has all these characters. She's quite remarkable.
Have you done anything with them recently?
We did a show at the beginning of 2001 and we ran it for about three months, ending in June. That ran off-Broadway. It was called The Book of Liz and it was about a crypto-Amish order called The Squeamish and Amy played Sister Elizabeth Donderstock of the community of Clusterhaven. They were famous for their cheese balls and I played a fellow Squeamish brother from another village. And I come in and try to take over the cheese ball operation. Elizabeth takes to the road and she meets up with a great many characters, a lot of whom I played. So there was lot of wig work and a lot of double sided tape. It was incredibly fun and it was the perfect thing with which to distract myself from having my first book about to come out because I was doing eight shows a week and it was just great: it took my mind off that anxiety. It was an incredible privilege to have something like that to do.
How do you define yourself professionally?
I'm a writer and I usually do that as if I were asking for the check. [He describes a flourish through the air with his right hand.] People say: what do you do? I'm a writer. [The same longhand air flourish.] Which is weird, because I haven't actually written anything longhand for [a long time]. Other than my telephone bill, I don't really write longhand. But yeah: at this point I would say I'm a writer.
Not an actor or comedian?
You just do that for fun sometimes?
Yeah. That's truly a hobby. And comedian? No. Never. Recently I had to say that I was a humorist, but it was strictly contextual and it was in the context of talking about what had been going on in New York and getting back to work and/or being humorous so, within that context, I had to say: As a humorist. But I'm generally not much one for pigeonholing because, as I've said before to other folks, people will pigeonhole you soon enough. There's no need for you to do their work for them in that way. It's what humans do: we classify and reduce so, I guess I just am a writer.
Do people ever try to pigeonhole you as a philosopher?
No way! As a philosopher? I couldn't philosophize my way out of a paper bag.
But you do. You do. Oh absolutely. I think.
I think. In a gentle, observational kind of way.
Well, there's certainly a political stance to the writing of the book, I think, that is somehow submerged. But I don't know that it's overtly... I feel strident, but I don't know that I necessarily write stridently. But I think there is a politics that obtains to the book as a whole.
In what way?
I would hope that certain kind of populism emerges within it. I don't know: I'm not being sufficiently articulate about this. But I would hope that there would be a certain kind of populism which isn't necessarily immediately apparent because, I don't know, there's something vaguely bookwormy about the persona that emerges, or somewhat rarefied. And I don't necessarily think that is people's immediate association with that kind of a populism. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, I think I do.
But what did you mean?
Well, I was thinking of, for instance, in the story where you're going up the mountain ["In New England Everyone Calls You Dave"]?
And you feel like everyone is being critical.
And they're not being remotely critical, yeah.
And you're kind of, like: They're looking at me! And we all kind of do that sometimes. Our inner, secret insecurities. And you conclude the piece with -- and I can't say it anywhere near as well as you did, so let me find it and read it:
At the summit I had pulled out the disposable camera I had bought at the Boston airport. I made Larry take my picture a number of times. When the film comes back, I will look at the photos of myself, scanning them for evidence. Looking for the face of an adult. The face of a man who climbs mountains. The face of a Dave.
There's something so lovely in that, David.
Well, there's a sadness. I mean, it's a pretty sad book.
But hopeful. That's very hopeful.
Yeah. You're looking at a brightness that maybe is already there.
Or, rather than hopeful, maybe romantic. There's a yearning quality there. I think that most, for want of a better term, most cynics are actually simply romantics who have been around beyond the age of 23. Do you know what I mean?
I think so. [Laughs]
The dream of a world of beauty and understanding and wish fulfillment is pretty well trumped by experience quite quickly. And then you are left with a certain kind of realism but you don't entirely abandon that kind of romantic yearning for something.
And that in itself is hope.
Sure. It gets you out of bed.
Now that's a cynical comment.
[A quiet shrug. A smile.]
Are you working on anything right now?
It's been rather odd. I was feeling kind of burned out and tired and [I] did the play, which was an extraordinarily fun experience, but it was very tiring.
When I was younger, I used to be able to hold down a full-time job, freelance write, drink and do a play. All four. And I did a few of them and I don't know how I did that because this time I managed to do the play and that's it. And the play was very exhausting, although very fun and the day after the play I went on book tour and did publicity for the book and then just had to go right back to work because off-Broadway for four months is actually not the best financial thing you can do.
Now it's five months later and stuff and I was sort of just back to work with general bread and butter freelance writing. What has happened to most everyone I know in New York City right now is that we've been sort of overcome with this kind of narcotic a-motivation. [September] was just an extraordinary month and we couldn't really do much. Just an incredibly sad time and it really kicked the shit out of most everyone I know. Not, obviously, to the extent of people who were personally touched but, in the city, we were all pretty well affected.
So, what am I working on? I'm thinking about working on a lot of stuff, but I also find myself kind of out of ideas and sick of the sound of my own voice. But I was sick of the sound of my voice long before September 11th, so check in with me next year when I'll be in medical school so I can be a 45-year-old doctor.
Do you also host a radio show?
Oh no. I'm just a fairly regular contributor to This American Life. The possibility of [hosting a show] comes up occasionally but, much in the way that a column would be difficult to do, I think it would sort of use me up and I don't feel that prolific. I think it would be hard to host, just for me. To keep it fresh.
The stories that appear in Fraud, did they originally appear in other forms?
Some of them, yes. A lot of them came from the radio show. Some appeared in magazines. And some were new for the book, but all were extensively rewritten for the book.
I read somewhere that the book was 12 years in the making. Were you writing it for that long?
Oh no. I just sat on my ass for 12 years. I guess that means 12 years in the making, but no: my poor agent and I worked together in 1988. And she said: Oh, I'll represent you. And I said: Great. Wait right here. And so the evening became the morning and 12 or 13 years later... but no: it wasn't 12 years in the making. [Laughs] 13 years it took you? Not very long, is it?
[My agent], poor thing, was so sweet. She's one of my best friends. She really just never pushed. And they're still not pushing, which is kind of nice. Because every time Doubleday says: so, are you thinking of another book? Apparently I get this terror-stricken look on my face.
Oh: I saw that look.
When you asked me what I was working on? Yeah. That one. | November 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.