David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Lessons In Misanthropy

Author David Rakoff i i

David Rakoff is the author of Fraud and Don't Get Too Comfortable. He is a regular contributor to This American Life and New York Times Magazine. Larry Busacca/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Author David Rakoff

David Rakoff is the author of Fraud and Don't Get Too Comfortable. He is a regular contributor to This American Life and New York Times Magazine.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

David Rakoff doesn't often look on the bright side, and in his latest collection of essays, Half Empty, he explains why you shouldn't either.

"I can see a great beauty in acknowledging the fact that the world is dark," Rakoff tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. It's healthy, he insists, to employ "a certain kind of clear-eyed examination of the world as it is."

In Half Empty's essays, Rakoff applies his signature wit to a range of wildly depressing subjects, including Sept. 11, AIDS and cancer.

Overcoming A Happy Childhood

To settle into this grim worldview, Rakoff had to transcend his "indulged, privileged" early years. "I was cursed with a very lovely childhood," he laments.

"I loathed being a child," he writes in his essay "Shrimp." "Childhood was a foreign country to me. Everyone has an internal age … I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between 47 and 53 years old."

Half Empty
Half Empty
By David Rakoff
Hardcover, 240 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

It didn't help that he was tiny. "I come from a short family," he writes, "but I was worryingly diminutive, freakishly small."  Unlike other small kids who made up for their size by "being athletic or straight," Rakoff says that he compensated for his small stature with a "constant barrage of sophisticated verbiage."

His "physical train" hadn't yet "come into the station" he explains, but "a certain kind of verbal acuity happened long before my body could catch up." It made for a jarring disconnect between his body and his voice, but he says the strategy helped cultivate his deep love of language.

Now in his 40s, Rakoff is nearing his natural "internal age" — and he's a man of average height. "I still manifest as someone smaller than I am," he says. When he tells people how tall he is, "People are often rather surprised," he says. "They're always like: 'Really? That's funny. I thought you were much smaller.' "

Thriving In 'Baseline Uncertainty'

Rakoff takes pleasure in seeing the world's negative space, and rendering it vividly and accurately — but he doesn't expect everyone to take on his Half Empty worldview. Anyone who picks up his book of essays will see the yellow warning label on the cover: "WARNING: No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages," it reads.

"I can only speak to myself," Rakoff explains. "I can only say what is true for me."

Today, Rakoff lives day to day with a "baseline uncertainty" — after being treated once already for cancer, the disease has come back, and he is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

"I live with it every day," he says. "I can channel my 12-year-old, teen-girl self — where I would stand in the mirror and cry and cry to certain songs." But Rakoff says he's found that he can also "survive and thrive and have a perfectly full life."

"Would I rather have the kind of certainty that I had in my life three years ago?" he says. "Undoubtedly. … [But ] I'm present in my life in a way that is very comforting to me."

Excerpt: 'Half Empty'

Half Empty
Half Empty
By David Rakoff
Hardcover, 240 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $24.95

The Bleak Shall Inherit

We were so happy. It was miserable.

Although it was briefly marvelous and strange to see a car parked outside an office, the wide hallway used like a street, many stories above the city.

The millennium had turned. The planes had not fallen from the sky, the trains had not careened off the tracks. Neither had the heart monitors, prenatal incubators, nor the iron lungs reset themselves to some suicidal zero hour to self-destruct in a lethal kablooey of Y2K shrapnel, as feared. And most important, the ATMs continued to dispense money, and what money it was.

I was off to see some of it. Like Edith Wharton's Gilded Age Buccaneers, when titled but cash-poor Europeans joined in wedlock with wealthy American girls in the market for pedigree, there were mutually abusive marriages popping up all over the city between un-moneyed creatives with ethereal Web-based schemes and the financiers who, desperate to get in on the action, bankrolled them. The Internet at that point was still newish and completely uncharted territory, to me, at least. I had walked away from a job at what would undoubtedly have been the wildly lucrative ground floor (1986, Tokyo) because it had seemed so boring, given my aggressive lack of interest in technology or machines, unless they make food. Almost fifteen years later, I was no more curious nor convinced, but now found myself at numerous parties for start-ups, my comprehension of which extended no further than the free snacks and drinks, and the perfume of money-scented elation in the air. The workings of "new media" remained entirely murky, and I a baffled hypocrite, scarfing down another beggar's purse with creme fraiche (flecked with just enough beads of caviar to get credit), pausing in my chewing only long enough to mutter "It'll never last." It was becoming increasingly difficult to fancy myself the guilelessly astute child at the procession who points out the emperor's nakedness as acquaintances were suddenly becoming millionaires on paper and legions of twenty-one-year-olds were securing lucrative and rewarding positions as "content providers" instead of answering phones for a living, as I had at that age. Brilliant success was all around.

So, so happy.

The surly Russian janitor (seemingly the only other New Yorker in a bad mood) rode me up in his dusty elevator in the vast deco building in the West Twenties, which was now home to cyber and design concerns that gravitated to its raw spaces and industrial cachet. The kind of place where the freight car and the corridors are both wide enough that you'd never have to get out of your Lexus until you'd parked it on the fourteenth floor.

Book publishing is always portrayed as teddibly genteel and literary: hunter-green walls, morocco-bound volumes, and some old codger in a waistcoat going on about dear Max Perkins. Worlds away from the reality of dropped-ceiling offices with seas of cubicles and mail-cart-scarred walls. But the Internet companies were coevolving with the fictionalized idealization of themselves. The way they looked in the movies was also how they looked in real life, much like real-life mobsters who now behave like the characters in the Godfather films.

The large industrial casement windows were masculine with grime, looking out over the rail yards on the open sky of West Side Manhattan. The content providers sat side by side at long metal trestle tables — the kind they use in morgues — providing content, the transparent turquoise bubbles of their iMacs shining like insect eyes. It was a painfully hip dystopia, some Orwellian Ministry of Malign Intent whose sheer stylishness made it a pleasure to be a chic and soulless drone; one's personal freedoms happily abrogated for a Hugo Boss jumpsuit.

I was there to interview the founders of a site that was to be the one stop where members of the media might log on to read about themselves and the latest magazine-world gossip, schadenfreude-laden items about hefty book advances and who was seen lunching at Michael's, etc. I will stipulate to a certain degree of prejudicial thinking before I even walked in. I expected a bunch of aphoristic, McLuhan-lite bushwa, something to justify the house-of-cards business model. But as a reporter, I was their target audience as well as a colleague. I was unprepared to be spoken to like an investor, as if I, too, were some venture capitalist who goes goggled-eyed and compliant at the mere mention of anything nonnumerical. I was being lubed up with snake oil, listening to a bunch of pronouncements that sounded definitive and guru-like on the surface but which upon examination seemed just plain old wrong.

"What makes a story really good and Webby," said one, "is, say, we post an item on David Geffen on a Monday, and then one of Geffen's people calls us to correct it, we can have a whole new version up by Tuesday." This was typical Dawn of the New Millennium denigration of print, which always seemed to lead to the faulty logic that it was not just the delivery system that was outmoded but such underlying practices as authoritative voice and credibility, fact-checking, editing, and impartiality that needed throwing out, too. It was a stance they both seemed a little old for, frankly, like watching a couple of forty-five-year-olds in backward baseball caps on skateboards. In the future, it seems, we would all take our editorial marching orders from the powerful subjects of our stories and it would be good (Right you are, Mr. Geffen!). It was a challenge to sit there and be told that caring about such things as journalistic independence or the desire to keep money's influence at even a show of remove meant one was clinging to old beliefs, a fossil in the making. Now that everything and everyone was palliated by the never-ending flow of revenue, there was no need to get exercised about such things, or about anything, really.

"We basically take John Seabrook's view that what you have is more important than what you believe. Whether you drive a Cadillac says more about you than if you're a Democrat or a Republican," said one, invoking a (print) journalist from The New Yorker.

Added the other: "That you watched The Sopranos last night is more important than who you voted for."

They weren't saying anything terribly incendiary. It's not like they were proposing tattooing people who have HIV the way odious William F. Buckley did (I'm sorry, I mean brilliant and courtly, such manners, and what a vocabulary! Nazi . . .). But we had just been through an electoral experience that had been bruising, to say the least. Who one voted for had almost never seemed more important, and they were saying it all so blithely. I felt like a wife who has caught her tobacco-and-gin-scented husband smeared in lipstick, a pair of silk panties sticking out of his jacket pocket, home after an unexplained three-day absence, listening to his giggling, sloppily improbable, and casually delivered alibi and being expected to swallow it while chuckling along.

We were silent for a moment, the only sound the keyboard tappings of the hipster minions. I finally managed to say, "I've just experienced the death of hope."

Excerpted from Half Empty by David Rakoff Copyright 2010 by David Rakoff. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.

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