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Ambitious, Charming, Disappointing
on July 5, 2013
The first thing that will strike most readers about Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, aside from its unusual title, is that it is written in rhymed couplets, most lines being ten, eleven, or twelve, syllables, some jogtrotting regularly, others hop-skipping, many of the couplets ending in striking and witty rhymes, almost Byronic in their inventiveness. On the other hand, as is so much the fate of poets writing in English, most of the rhymes just happen, self-effacing, and we move along almost without noticing them. All this (and it is a lot) adds to the pleasure of reading the linked narratives that make up, in the form of brief chapters, this novella (really it is not sufficiently developed, even with its sweep across a couple of centuries, to be called a novel).
David Rakoff's "novel in verse" is not as formally uncommon as many readers might think. Long narratives--both fictional (novels?) and nonfiction (historical, autobiographical, biographical)--have been a small but steady presence in the literary world. (David Mason, Ludlow; Ruth Padel, Darwin: A Life in Verse; Daryl Hine, In and Out; Vikram Seth, Golden Gate, are just a few book-length works in a variety of genres, but all written in verse.) It is difficult, in fact, to define or even identify a "novel in verse" that could not just as easily be called a "long narrative poem" (one thinks of William Morris's saga of Jason and the Argonauts, for example), though comparison with the Brownings' big poems--Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh or Robert's The Ring and the Book, might open some parameters. Even Herman Melville's Clarel might offer some points of reference, but the better point of comparison would probably be Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.
Rakoff develops several characters, somewhat linked by encounter or even ancestry, with the most prominent being Clifford, Helen, Susan, and Josh. Their stories occur in brief episodes with some linking exposition, and though the characters are interesting, sympathetic, the incidents of their lives, presented in such condensed and fragmentary form, are unfortunately cliched and too familiar. The novel opens with the tale of red-headed Margaret, a child who is beautiful, abused, sent away to escape the predatory man--her mother's lover--who has raped her. Terrible events and wrenching drama do not necessarily make for depth or weight, and that is the problem with this novel.
David Rakoff died much too young, and though he might have felt this novel was "finished," it feels like a bunch of preliminary notes toward what might have been a powerful exploration of changing social and moral values as well as portraits of the courage and persistence of people affected by unfair or even tragic events. But it hardly happens in this novel. When Clifford, the gay man, dies of AIDS, the event is sad, but no more (nor less) meaningful than any other account of the effects of "the plague," since it has little context and very little development. Of course, there are novels composed of sequences of brief episodic narratives, with little explanatory or developmental linkage, written so that the reader is obliged to make the connections or at least be alert to those embedded in the sections. Quite a few contemporary novels ignore chronology but link sections by referring to events or characters in earlier sections, and these can be either tricksy and cute or sometimes profound and moving. But when this approach to structure fails to work as intended, the result is disappointing.
I would have liked to be enthusiastic about this novel for several reasons, but the experience of reading it does not stimulate enthusiasm--just a sense of regret at opportunities missed and the pain of loss of a writer who had much to offer, but not enough time.