Friday, January 21, 2011

Half Empty (David Rakoff)

Half Empty is the latest collection of essays from award-winning writer and NPR’s This American Life contributor David Rakoff. Through his series of lighthearted, mostly autobiographical essays, Rakoff attempts to peel back the magic curtain of optimism that has run rampant in contemporary culture and demonstrate that it might do us some good to lower our expectations because disappointment is here to stay. All this talk of disappointment, though, all felt -- well, half empty. On the cover, I was warned that no inspirational life lessons would be found in these pages, which is fine because I wasn’t looking for any. I was actually looking forward to a different, more realistic perspective. What I found instead was a set of essays that were at times incoherent and grossly verbose, and common sense observations passed off as great truths.


The first essay sets the stage for the supposedly overarching theme of the collection. Rakoff tells about interviewing Julie Norem, the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, an assignment for a web publication that he never ends up writing. He explains her theory that we don’t need to be happy all the time, that negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, can also be productive in our lives. The essay is peppered with accounts of people whose cultural behavior exemplifies this theory, or contradicts it. This journalistic evidence gives the essay some more heft, akin to the way Malcolm Gladwell lays out his books’ social themes with factual arguments. However, I’m already not a fan of his lots-of-hyphenated-and/or-flowery-adjectives style, and I’m constantly having to reread sentences. Nor do I care for Rakoff’s overwhelming self-importance that often feels more like boasting or a cry for pity than the intended touch of humor. I commend him for putting so many of his personal experiences out there like that, but I'm not amused. Whether he’s talking about the movie role hehad but didn’t keep , his underwhelming reaction to the Broadway hit Rent, a tour of the ill-conceived Dream Home in Disneyworld’s Tomorrowland, the burden yet responsibility of being the keeper of others’ secrets, or his experience being re-diagnosed with cancer, there are some interesting moments and ideas but as a whole the collection is ultimately dissatisfying. Maybe that’s what Rakoff was going for all along, making a statement that we shouldn’t expect much of anything in life, not even his book, because disappointment is all around us and we should just get used to it? Unfortunately, I don’t think he was.


Half Empty
by David Rakoff

Story: 3.3 - Okay, so it’s a collection of essays and they don’t necessarily need to be that closely related. But from the start, we’re led to believe that they will be by this notion of negativity as a positive force, yet that is not apparent enough in most of the essays. I lost count of how many times during the course of reading this book I stopped and thought, “Wait, what does any of this have to do with anything?” I kept waiting for it to all come together and make sense in the end in some masterful way, only to be left hanging with some generic conclusion that felt contrived. Some of the essays did have compelling premises though, particularly “Dark Meat,” about the tortured Jewish love affair with pork and “A Capacity for Wonder,” about three trips to culturally iconic places that are disappointing or underwhelming. Through it all, the journalistic touches were one of Half Empty's strengths, albeit downplayed, offering refreshing moments of objective substance.

Style: 2.5 - You know that friend that everyone has that always has some story to tell, but midway through they start talking about something else vaguely related and go on and on about it, and this goes on until they remember the thing they had started talking about in the first place or they just stop? Give that friend an incredible vocabulary and a wide cultural knowledge so they can use a lot of big words and make a lot of obscure references, and you’ve got David Rakoff in Half Empty. If there’s such a thing as a connoisseur of the runoff sentence, Rakoff is the king and his crown is made of parentheses. I enjoy a good set of parentheses here and there, used sparingly and purposefully. But here they’re more often disrupting. In the first essay alone parentheses are used so liberally that there’s a pair on nearly every page, and Rakoff often uses them as an excuse to digress or interject an irrelevant, page-long anecdote.

General: 2.0 - I really disliked this book. If I hadn’t forced myself to finish it for the sake of this review, I would have stopped reading it midway through the second essay. That’s a shame, because the later essays were the more interesting ones, but still in need of tighter editing. I also had a hard time being able to relate to many of the essays, but I could have dealt with that if I hadn’t had to stop to roll my eyes so much or reread every other sentence.

Overall: 2.6

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