David Rakoff

Half Empty

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Half Empty Summary

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Half Empty is a 2010 collection of essays by This American Life contributor David Rakoff. The essays all deal with the concept of pessimism and how it can be surprisingly adaptive. Although humorous in tone, Rakoff addresses some serious issues, such as his own cancer diagnoses (there have been, so far, two). In an interview with The Daily Californian (2008), while he was still working on Half Empty, he said, “[The essays are] essentially about pessimism and melancholy: all the other less than pleasant to feel emotions that because they are less than pleasant to feel have been more or less stricken from the public discourse but in fact have their uses and even a certain beauty to them.” Rakoff first found his way into public radio by making the acquaintance of Dave Sedaris; later, Sedaris introduced him to Ira Glass, just as he was beginning This American Life. Rakoff has worked widely as a freelance writer as well, publishing regularly in Conde Nast Traveler, GQ, Outside Magazine, and The New York Times, as well as numerous other publications.

In his first essay, “The Bleak Shall Inherit,” playing off the common Biblically derived phrase, “The meek shall inherit the earth,” an interview with psychologist Julie Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Rakoff sets the agenda for the remainder of the collection: pessimism can be “defensive.” This defensive pessimism protects its adherents by spurring them to prepare in advance for worst-case scenarios. It is, in other words, easier to respond to catastrophe’s knock on the door when one is constantly expecting its arrival. Rakoff presents various iterations of this idea in the nine essays that follow.

The essays are replete with astute, usually cutting social observations, which Rakoff implicitly positions as the effects of defensive pessimism, which entails a social clear-sightedness. In the wide-ranging “The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” for instance, Rakoff covers his first career, publishing (“They asked me to eat shit, and all I did was request a bigger spoon”), his almost movie debut in The First Wives Club, and a failed relationship with fellow author Olivia Goldsmith. He recounts, “I once watched Jacqueline Onassis wait for an elevator, and the heightened performance of casualness of everyone around her paying her no notice had about as much in common with ignoring someone as a Father’s Day department store window resembles an actual barbecue” (The New York Times).

Perhaps Rakoff’s most controversial essay is “Isn’t It Romantic,” which attacks the play Rent with gleeful fervor: “In Rent, AIDS seems only to render one cuter and cuter.” The play, he contests, is a “middlebrow lie…posing as an antidote, like watching a sex-ed film narrated by gonorrhea” (The New York Times). It has been suggested that the force of Rakoff’s critique suffers from the fact that his chosen subject – a play that debuted in 1994 and was already well worn, if not entirely irrelevant, by the time of Rakoff’s publication – was a bit after the fact.

In “Another Shoe,” Rakoff discusses his second diagnosis with cancer, a sarcoma in his neck that threatens the nerves and use of one arm. The sarcoma has probably arisen, his doctors tell him, from the radiation therapy he experienced in his twenties after a bout with lymphoma. “The hope is that chemo will shrink [the cancer] a few millimeters so that it’s no longer touching quite so many vital cables that go down your arm and then my wonderful surgeon will be able to go in and get the tumor without taking the arm. But, as they keep on telling me, no one dies from the arm. So there’s a lot of stuff you can do with one arm — like continue living. So my arm is in danger but for now, knock on wood, I’m not in danger which is a distinction worth making.” Rakoff sticks to his philosophy here, not pitying himself or falling into the questioning “why me?” mentality that commonly (and understandably) occurs with a cancer diagnosis. Rakoff’s defensively pessimistic response is, “Why not me?” He lists many of the ways his life could be worse, finding comfort in it that, although the cliché gains new life from Rakoff’s expression.

As many critics have pointed out, Half Empty‘s premise is not astoundingly novel. Rakoff has a habit of tackling arguably irrelevant subjects – the kind it is safe to approach with pessimism, because no one is likely to care enough to object to Rakoff derogating them (such as the Bush presidency’s military strategies, halfway through Obama’s first term; the ground Rakoff covers on that topic, by then, had already been well-trodden). The strength of his essays comes from his distinctive and witty authorial voice, rather than the ingenuity of their logic, and their most affecting moments come from his willingness to turn his scathing wit and “defensive pessimism” upon even himself.