I’m not generally a poetry reader. I mean, I like poems if they happen to cross my path, but it’s rare that I would sit down and read a whole book of poetry. But I loved David Rakoff’s essay collections Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty, so I decided to pick up his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, published posthumously. Love, Dishonor is a novel in rhyming couplets, and it follows a loosely connected group of people throughout the 20th century.
Fans of This American Life may recognize one of these chapters–Nathan’s chapter is a revised version of the “Scorpion and the Tortoise” story from the Frenemies episode. For those of you who haven’t heard it, it’s a toast being given by Nathan at the wedding of his ex-girlfriend Susan and his ex-best friend Josh. He tells the allegory of a scorpion who asks a tortoise to help him cross the river. The tortoise is hesitant, and the scorpion points out that if he stings the tortoise, both creatures will drown. Yet the scorpion still stings the tortoise halfway across the river, and as they’re both drowning, the scorpion says he couldn’t help it–it’s just his nature. Nathan concludes
So what can we learn from their watery ends?
Is there some lesson on how to be friends?
I think what it means is that central to living
A life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.
We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether
to kiss or to wound, we still must come together.
So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well
It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.’
I loved that piece when I first heard it on the radio, and in the context of the book, where it’s preceded by Nathan’s breakup and followed by the story of what happens to Susan and Josh. The novel also branches out to characters who are more loosely connected. I won’t spoil it, but the way the final chapter makes the connections clear is beautiful.
The book also features bright, cartoonish illustrations by Seth, who illustrates the children’s book series All The Wrong Questions. I liked the style of illustrations–they were a good match for the way Rakoff’s verses provide a sketch of what each character’s personality is like.
The back cover blurb for Love, Dishonor says, “Rakoff’s insistence on beauty and the necessity of kindness in a selfish world raises the novel far above mere satire,” and I fully agree. In the hands of a lesser writer, a novel written entirely in rhyming couplets could have been a mere gimmick. In Rakoff’s hands, it’s a thing of beauty.