Essays: “Fraud” by David Rakoff

Written September 5, 2012

Oh my god, this is the most frustrating thing ever. Well, okay; one of the most frustrating things. This is easily in the top ten, though.

As y’all know by now, I’ve been having issues getting internet. So here I am on my day off this week, doing laundry at the semi-local Laundromat. (There’s a localer one in Freeport, but I didn’t even go inside. It didn’t look clean, and there were no tables or chairs. In fact, for lack of a better term, the whole place looked pretty … rapey, and I don’t like throwing around that word. [IT IS SO A WORD, SHUT UP BRAD, who doesn’t even read this]) So I drove down to Portland and went to my old Laundromat, because yeah, it’s a bit out of my way, but I know I’ll have a table and a chair on which to write while my laundry spins. And all the light bulbs work.

(Except that, when I get here, there are no chairs. The chairs by the tables have disappeared. And so, I’m sitting on a table cross-legged, with my netbook in my lap. And my iPod’s battery is in the red, so I’m playing Chicken with Barney the iPod to see who cracks first. All I need is a pair of Old Navy flip-flops and my ratty FPC sweatshirt and it’d be just like college up in here.)

(FPC = Franklin Pierce College. Fuck you, Franklin Pierce University. I mean, what the shit is that?)

So anyway. I’m perched, and I happen to see that there are internet connections available. And I’ve almost never been able to connect to WiFi here, but I’m desperate, so I give it a shot. And holy shit — the Yahoo! page comes up! And I can open another tab and then Google comes up! And I can vote for the Tubeys on Television Without Pity! And then —

AND THEN THE ROUTER CONKS OUT AND I’M INTERNET-LESS AGAIN.

Dear Internets: why do you hate me? All I want to do is love you, and learn with you, and watch TV on you, and interact with you. You’ve been a true companion over the past decade; why are you turning on me? ALL I WANT TO DO IS CONNECT WITH YOU AND YOU WON’T LET ME.

*sigh* And so, after half an hour (or one wash cycle) of frigging with the internet that doesn’t belong to me, it turns out it’s the router which isn’t mine so I can’t fix it, and that’s why I’m writing this, my last backlog blog, in a Word document. Because the Internet hates me. And Wednesday hates me. And my days off hate me. Basically, all of the hatred in the world somehow got together today and decided, “Hey, it’s Alaina’s ONE DAY OFF this week! Let’s see what we can do to completely fuck it up.”

Therefore, I think it’s fitting that today’s book review is of Fraud, a collection of essays by the (sadly) late David Rakoff.

I picked up Mr. Rakoff’s second collection, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, after seeing him on The Daily Show. I thought he was hysterically funny, and to be honest, there have been a couple of books I’ve picked up because Jon Stewart clearly had chosen to read the book, not just the back cover (you watch enough Daily Show, you learn to tell the difference between when Jon reads the book and when he doesn’t). And then, because this is how I operate, I went out and bought the first book — Fraud — and then promptly … didn’t read it.

In fact, I leant both books to Brad a few years ago — right after I bought both of them. He’s a Sedaris fan, and … he may have seen me reading Comfortable in the break room, or maybe I was reading my favorite parts out loud because I loved it so much, anyway, he asked to borrow them; I said ‘sure.’ Two years later I get the first one back; I don’t get Fraud back until last summer. In fact — and I told him this when I got them back — I had forgotten I had leant them to him. I wasn’t even pissed about the length of time it took to give them back, because I had his copy of Million Dollar Baby for at least two years, and for most of it, it was holding up Jeremy the Tivo at the old apartment. (He may have gotten the case back with a TiVo-sized dent in the top. He was a sport and still leant me stuff after that. This is why we are friends.)

(I also think it’s hilarious that, in the process of moving, I offered Brad first dibs on any of my books and/or DVDs I was going to get rid of. He said that he was ‘all about Blu-Ray,’ and passed on the DVDs, but did say, “I’ll take your David Rakoff books.” But I want those, Brad! You are limited to the books in the box marked “TO GET RID OF.”)

Then, a month ago, I learn that Mr. Rakoff passed away. I was really sad when I heard that, because I loved Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and was hoping he’d be around for a very long time. Put succinctly: Fuck cancer, man.

So when I unpacked my books and found Fraud, I picked it up after Loyalty in Death. And when I saw this was the first quote (I’m not sure what the term is, but it’s the quote that authors put before they start their books, and it gives the book a sense of atmosphere and theme), my heart melted and I died a little:

2012-08-19 13.51.25

OH MY GOD. Oh, my GOD. You guys. That is I kid you not, one of my favorite quotes of all time. It’s from All About Eve, one of the best movies of all time. I love that movie so much, I’m not sure I’ll be able to talk coherently about it. My favorite character (after Margo Channing, of course, who is played by the fabulous Bette Davis) is Addison De Witt, the theatre critic, played by the wonderful George Sanders (the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book, for those who may have seen that movie and not All About Eve, which is okay — I liked The Jungle Book). The quote in question is directed towards the great Margo Channing, who is in the middle of the performance of her life: the bumpy night of the other famous quote from the movie. She is lashing out at everyone due to her own crumbling self-esteem, and Addison notices it, latches on to it, points it out, and turns it into a compliment. Because yes, she is being terribly maudlin (who plays Liebestraum over and over again at a party?) and full of self-pity (because she doesn’t believe Bill when he tells her he feels nothing for Eve, who is much younger than Margo), but you know what? She is magnificent in her downward spiral. She commands the room as she commands the stage, and all eyes are on her during these moments. She is magnificent.

While others have clung to Margo’s famous ‘Curtain’ speech, about women and their careers and what they give up for success and how love and family plays into their success, I have always raised the flag of Addison as my life-model. He is a success, he is a manipulating bastard, and he calls ’em like he sees ’em. And to everyone out there: you may be maudlin and full of self-pity, but by God, you are magnificent.

Holy crap; almost thirteen hundred words and almost none of them are about the book. So anyway, when I saw that quote I died a little and knew immediately that I would love the book.

As I think I said above (I’m not scrolling up to find out), Fraud is a collection of essays. Mr. Rakoff was a contributor to This American Life on NPR, and he’d written articles for GQ and New York Times Magazine. The premise of this collection is that Mr. Rakoff goes and does things that he doesn’t normally do (like, climb a mountain in New England, visit Tokyo, and attend a comedy festival) and try to assimilate into that particular segment of culture.

In the first essay, Mr. Rakoff climbs — I shit you not — Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Why do I shit you not? Because Mount Monadnock is within sight of the aforementioned Franklin Pierce College that I attended! I have people who have actually climbed Mount Monadnock! (I have not, because I have always been very upfront about not being a hiker.) He meets up with this guy, Larry David, who has climbed the mountain every day. Rakoff, also not being a hiker, wears Payless hiking boots and gets winded easily. When they reach the summit, instead of feeling victorious and like he conquered something, Rakoff feels apathy: “this is it?” Sorry, David; if you had asked me first, I would have told you that Jaffrey, NH’s nothing to write home about. All it has is a Mr. Mike’s gas station.

He travels to Iceland to investigate the myth of the Hidden People. There’s this rock, see, and the city of Reykjavík wants to redo a road, and the rock will have to be moved. But local lore says that there’s a race of Hidden People (like elves) that inhabit the rock, and if the rock is moved or their home destroyed, terrible things will happen. Obviously, Rakoff finds no evidence about the Hidden People, but he does interview a woman who claims to have them living with her in her house:

“One sits there, two are walking over here, one sits there. When she plays music they come. It attracts them.”

I am suddenly overcome with a completely inappropriate urge: the barely suppressed impulse to slam my hand down on the coffee table really, really hard, right where she’s pointing. [88]

I felt that this collection was more cohesive than Don’t Get Too Comfortable — but please don’t quote me, as it’s been at least four years since I read that one. There were a couple of places that made me laugh out loud, but only because I’m a pop culture moron: he attends a cultish weekend, and is told that lunch will begin with a blast from a conch shell, and I immediately yelled out “NEWS TEAM … ASSEMBLE.” He tells a story about this Greek ice cream shop he used to work at as a teenager, and the hired a French chef named … Benoît. [BALLS — thanks, Archer.] He mentions the plight of Kitty Geneovese, and I start reciting the Boondock Saints prayer.

Oh look, I’m about to tie the whole thing together! David Rakoff was this generation’s Addison De Witt. He may not have been a theatre critic, but he critiqued our culture, from the weird cults and the survivalists to Tokyo and Icelandic Hidden People. He tried to understand why those people believed what they did and he tried to indoctrinate himself, but his cynicism wouldn’t let him. Which is fine — my cynicism keeps me from believing lots of things. He has an acerbic wit that cuts to the core but also enlightens and reveals hidden depths in his words.

So dear Brad, I’m keeping this book. And Don’t Get Too Comfortable. And I’m going to buy his other book too, and I’ll also keep that. You may borrow them again; that’s cool.

But I really like his writing, and am still very sad that he’s gone too soon. You will be missed, David Rakoff. Very much.

And with that, I am caught up with my backlog. And also, I have internets at the new apartment, so I shouldn’t have to steal from Starbucks any longer. Huzzah!

Grade for Fraud: 4 stars

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