MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Writer and public radio contributor David Rakoff has a new book of essays out called "Don't Get Too Comfortable." The book skewers American excess, which would be a bit unseemly coming from a Canadian, but Rakoff has taken care of that. The first essay in the book describes how he became an American.
Mr. DAVID RAKOFF (Author, "Don't Get Too Comfortable"): You know, after 23 years, almost a quarter century of living in this country, which I came here for college and I essentially never left, I finally decided that it was time for me to become a citizen. And I was very ambivalent about it. I confess to remaining somewhat ambivalent about my decision to have done so. But I really felt the need that I had to be able to finally vote. You know, I had lived here, I had paid taxes, I went on demos. You know, I was sort of politically active, but I lacked this one right. And I also started to feel, post-2000 and certainly post-2001 with the Patriot Act--I felt that there was a central lack of safety in my life in New York City. I felt that it could be rescinded from me for no reason that would strike me as being good but could be done with governmental sanction, and that freaked me out.
BRAND: And so you download the application and are immediately baffled by some of the questions.
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, yes. I mean, some of the questions are really easy. I proceeded very carefully, first of all, because I have terrible handwriting. And it was like in your fourth-grade project where you think you've sort of done the work, but you're kind of worried, so you decide to concentrate extra specially on your penmanship, and you'll, like, thread puffy yarn through the punched holes and--to sort of divert them from the fact that, like, you didn't do enough work. But everything I was able to do.
There's even a question which I think is very daunting for many people, which is you have to account for every trip you've taken outside the United States over a 24-hour duration for a 10-year period. Well, I've kept every date book that I have, and I know every place I went. So I created this beautiful table, and that was fantastic. It was really--I was immensely proud of that. But there was one question which went--I'm paraphrasing, but it was essentially this: `Did you ever live in the United States between your 18th and 26th birthdays in any capacity other than that of a lawful non-immigrant?'...
BRAND: What does that mean?
Mr. RAKOFF: ...or something like that. And I was like, `I--did I' (mumbles). You know, I was--I'm a writer. You know, this is what I do. I literally had no idea what they were talking about, none whatsoever. I was like, `Oh, my God.' I, you know, invented hypotheticals and double negatives. And so I put the thing away for four months. I even wrote away to Selective Services, asking them this sort of vague question like, `Did I ever live here as a non-immigrant?' They brought me back and said, `We have no idea who you are, and we have no idea what you're talking about.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RAKOFF: So we just--so that kind of thing. And eventually one night I was dropping off to sleep, and I thought, `Oh! No.'
BRAND: It's not something--right.
Mr. RAKOFF: You know? So--yeah. It was actually--so I went on. And another question that sort of stopped me short was whether I would--if the law required it, would I bear arms on behalf of the United States? And that sort of stopped me for about a week, and then I checked `Yes'--well, for a variety of reasons; one is because it struck me that the spirit of the question was: Would I ever? And, you know, if they said, `Guess what? We're finally going to go in and stop the Janjaweeds' genocide in Darfur, and we need every able-bodied man. Are you in?' You know, I would probably say yes. So that was the nature of the question, but, also, my feeling was, you know, I'm a 41-year-old guy. I'm and asking-and-telling homosexual. I have a hypoactive thyroid. You know, if they're going to call me up, something really bad must have happened.
BRAND: So now throughout this book you really delve into the hypocrisies of our luxury culture, our consumer culture. Your last collection, which I haven't read. I'm sorry. Your last collection of essays that you referred to...
Mr. RAKOFF: How dare you?
BRAND: But you referred to it in this book, so I will take the liberty...
Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.
BRAND: ...of saying that it was very inward-focused. It was about yourself.
Mr. RAKOFF: It was much more inwardly focused, yes. It was a book of first-person essays. And I really felt that I could not go back to that well. I was so sick of the sound of my own voice, and I really felt that I had trod that ground really thoroughly. I was very invested in the idea that I could write about something that wasn't just myself. And, also, time and tide conspired, and we've ended up moving through an age that is far less inward. And so there seemed to be reason for outrage. The level of luxury and privileges being treated as if they were deserved rights has actually always been a bee in my bonnet.
BRAND: Let's talk about that in another essay that you wrote. This one is called "What Is the Sound of One Hand Shopping?" And then you begin it with a gourmet restaurant, the name of which...
Mr. RAKOFF: Yes.
BRAND: ...shall go unsaid, where you sort of really take apart our self-centered, consumerist obsession with the little things in life.
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, exactly. I mean, it was a lovely meal, but it was just that; it was a meal. And there was this sense in the room that everybody was not just sort of really doing our part against big agribusiness, you know, like, `Take that, Archers Daniel Midland. Ha, ha, sucks boo to you, Monsanto.' But there was also this sense that we were there to celebrate, you know. So dessert was one Medjool date and one perfect tangerine, locally grown. And the waiter said to us, `We'd like to encourage you to bruise the orange leaf between your fingers.' And it's very nice to do that. I mean, you know, you release oils and it's lovely, but it was like, `Can everybody please relax?'
And we--I went to the bathroom at one point, and it was almost as if it had been scripted because I passed by one bartender saying, `Yeah, yeah, I think I'm just going to stay in this weekend and roast garlic.' I mean, I was reminded in that moment of that old Lenny Bruce joke, where he says, `Ah, what's Flamenco? Just some dancer applauding his own ass.' You know, I just thought, `Wow, there's a lot of Flamenco going around this room tonight.'
BRAND: And, David, you don't just reserve your scorn for American culture. You actually travel abroad to get a taste of Paris in one of your essays, and you go the fashions shows. And tell us about that.
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, I went to the couture shows, which are different from ready-to-wear in that every couture garment has to be made entirely by hand. And I went for, you know, an influential fashion magazine, and so I was very well treated. But here's--I'll read a passage about something that was somewhat divergent from that model: (Reading) `All of the designers I have met up to this point have been very nice, although upon being introduced to Karl Lagerfeld, he looks me up and down and dismisses me with the not-super-kind, "What can you write that hasn't already been written?" Well, he's absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try.'
`The only thing that I can come up with at that moment is that Lagerfeld's powdered-white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn't. Also, not yet having undergone his alarming weight loss at that point and seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from his pan, he resembles a domi caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children while, from his other end, he expels out huge malodorous piles of tainted money. How's that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L?'
BRAND: So he really...
Mr. RAKOFF: I mean, there was no reason for him not to just be nice to me, so I really found it mystifying why this man would choose that moment and me to lash out in that way.
BRAND: Well, you had the last word.
Mr. RAKOFF: Well, from your mouth to God's ear.
BRAND: Well, David Rakoff, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. RAKOFF: This was really a pleasure. Thank you so much.
BRAND: The new book is "Don't Get Too Comfortable" by David Rakoff.
More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.