“Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish” by David Rakoff (2013) – 113 pages
The infant, named Margaret, had hair on her head
Thick and wild as a fire, and three times as red.
This entire novel is written in rhyming couplets. The technical name for the lines in this novel is ‘anapestic tetrameter’, lines of four feet, each of three syllables, the stress falling on the last. This information comes from a brilliant article by Alexandra Schwartz about Rakoff’s novel in the New Yorker, an article that if you are truly interested in reading Rakoff’s book, you have got to read. But don’t let the words ‘anapestic tetrameter’ throw you; This is the same couplet structure as the poems ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and Dr. Seuss’s ‘Yertle the Turtle’.
The effect of all this rhyme is quite sing songy, but the verse must carry some heavy weight here. It must carry all the emotion of that long list of verbs in the title above as well as all the wild highs of gay sex in San Francisco in the Seventies.
O just like the song says, my heart’s San Francisco’s
(Suck on that dear, while I work out where this goes…)
From the very first day Clifford couldn’t conceive
Why anyone ever decided to leave.
Hills, bay, and art, ineluctably bound
To make Clifford feel, I was lost now am found.
And crowning it all was the chief among joys:
The liquid ubiquitous river of boys.
Fuckable, kissable, dateable, rentable,
Faeries and rough trade, or highly presentable,
Stupid as livestock or literate in Firbank,
All of it galaxies distant from Burbank.
As a hetero, these lines make me feel . . . uncomfortable, perhaps as uncomfortable as a gay might feel when reading racy sex scenes between men and women.
After my attitude in the previous sentence, am I allowed to criticize this book?
Going ahead, my main problem is that I read another novel also about San Francisco in the Seventies which was written in couplets too. That novel in verse was “The Golden Gate” by Vikram Seth. I suspect that book was written by a closeted gay and has none of the explicitness of Rakoff’s book. But the main difference between the two novels is that the verse in “The Golden Gate” is a spectacular literary delight while the verse in Rakoff’s book is never more than serviceable. Additionally “The Golden Gate”, which I consider one of the finest novels of the 20th century, presents a single coherent story, while the various stories in Rakoff’s book are disconnected and disjointed and do not lead to any compelling conclusion.
The artwork by Seth is also nothing to write home about.