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Book review: <i>Don’t Get Too Comfortable</i> by David Rakoff



If this was a twenty year old man with Dad issues, too much money and half a pound of coke up his nose, it would be Brett Easton Ellis.

Cover

A nice royal-ish red with a crisp black & white illustration of a gilt-edged chair having the floor beneath it sawn away. Text is equally natty black and white.

The plot

It’s hard to neatly summarise here (the blurb can’t manage it either), but the “vibe” is captured cutely in the title. This is basically journalistic writing, non-glossy magazine-style, covering various occasions, events and outings to which Rakoff has been invited or invited himself. The overarching theme is that of a masturbatory mental self-indulgence, sometimes, but not always, twinned to the more commonly discussed masturbatory physical self-indulgences of modern western civilization. It’s tough to encapsulate but, trust me, it’s self-evident from article one, wherein Rakoff deconstructs food writing which has surpassed the high, HIGH wank-o-meter reading set in the last century by wine aficionados.

Alongside the author we then travel to an island paradise so some Latino Playboy bunnies can be photographed, visit the headquarters of Martha Stewart’s homewares empire, mince through a season of Paris couture shows, visit plastic surgeons, go on a walking tour with New Yorkers learning how to find edible grass in Central Park, and finally manipulate ourselves right up to the afterlife with an exploration of cryogenic preservation.

The good

It’s a fascinating and, as you’ll realise reading it, far too uncommonly pondered theme. If you’ve ever watched the Only In America segments at the end of the news about Paris Hilton’s dog’s psychiatrist’s tennis coach’s bellboy’s whimsical script about the life of his own arse being made into a film partly based on the TV show F-Troop for a hundred and seventy-eight million dollars and thought anything other than “those wacky seppos”* then you might find an answer in here.

* Editor’s note for non-Australian readers: the term “Seppos” is Australian (possibly also British) rhyming slang for people from the U.S.A. It is derived from like: this people from the U.S.A. are referred to as “yanks” which rhymes with “septic tanks” which is then abbreviated to remove the rhyming part, in a traditonally Aussie way so that it ends in “o” or “os”, to “seppos”. Rhyming slang is a cunning way to throw off foreigners and has been said to have been invented by Irish immigrants, who settled in East London, to confuse the English.

But it’ll be between the lines, because Rakoff is a damn good observer, and he doesn’t resort to preaching or stuffing his opinion into your face. It’s a neat trick, actually–Rakoff certainly isn’t dryly objective; he allows the reader a level of entry to both his life and personality, yet these are secondary elements and do not overwhelm the writer’s eye in the moment. Each time Rakoff slips from a personal mode to that of the observer, it allows us to be freshly introduced to both the scene delineated and our own, suddenly unaccompanied, reaction to it. He does this with such flair that I found my own reactions taking me by surprise, surely a mark of talented observational writing.

An example of Rakoff’s expertly measured touch is the issue of his own homosexuality. Again, he surprises by drawing connections, sparingly but effectively, that a straight chap like myself would not necessarily have seen, yet he is also either highly restrained or oblivious of a desire to score political points from most soft targets. His humour, also, has notes of camp to it, but entirely avoids innuendo and any tedious desire to shock. Okay, you might be thinking that I’m generalising on the verge of non-PC here, but try this out: Rakoff does an entire chapter that begins by revealing his obsession with hobby crafts, and ends with a visit to the viscera of Martha Stewart homewares HQ, without once sounding mimsy or affectedly effete. Yet his touch is light enough to allow the background humour of a grown man both embarrassed and blessed by his hobby to permeate the whole affair.

The bad

It’s too short. Barely two hundred pages, and airily typeset at that. Like Jon Stewart’s similarly slim effort, however, it’s mostly gold and hangs together perfectly, so you’re left with an impression of great talent and control, or else a gift for ruthless self-censorship bordering on the same thing.

Although this isn’t polemical or screedy and even largely avoids the primary-coloured personal POV of somebody like Bill Bryson, it is still coloured in shades of the author’s blending. There’s a tentative pessimism underlying a lot of it, although, as I said, this frequently drops away and leaves one to realise that one has, in fact, judged subject X to be a douchelord all on one’s own lonesome.

On top of this, Rakoff is quite aware of his own flaws, which though not excusing them in his writing, does help one forgive his approach to strangers and some of the situations he finds himself in–backstage at a fashion show he describes the predictable chaos, and relays how, between laps, “the models stand around in just thongs and high heels. This is probably some other guy’s fantasy that I’m standing in, here,” and even the most fervent FHM fan would have a hard time justifying any further exploration on that score, especially when Rakoff totally fails to pendulum back into Will and Grace territory.

Don’t come looking for simple answers–you can find a few below the surface, if you’re looking, because Rakoff is good, but, despite the slightly misleading tone of the introduction, you will not be told what to think here. If you’re looking for non-fiction that agrees with everything you already believe, then look somewhere else–Rakoff has opinions, sure, but he expects you to form your own.

What I learnt

That the leading cryogenic storage facility in the U.S. is currently undergoing renovations with the help of a Hollywood set designer to replace the (totally functional) barn-style door of their storage area with a big cool-looking steel industrial freezer effort, and surround the tanks themselves with unnecessary but filmic lighting and surgical gear. Because when people are visiting the stainless steel vat soon to contain their frosty, faceless severed head (alongside assorted other corpses plus human, canine and feline heads) they want a sense of theatre, God dammit.

In short

Title: Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Author: David Rakoff
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
ISBN: 0385661851
Year published: 2005
Pages: 240
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Essays

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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