Only Connect: David Rakoff’s “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish”

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This book was a gift from a friend (Hi Fran!) and immediately caught my attention because of its cover. Yes, those are actual holes through which you can make out the title once you get over the portrait on the cover. David Rakoff passed away only two years ago (1964-2012), right after finishing this book. He was mainly known for his journalism and non-fiction.

Rakoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a novel in verse — and not just that, it’s a novel in rhyming verse, usually pair-rhymes. This gives the whole affair an interesting tone. In all, the novel is a tightrope act as it chronicles the life stories of a number of characters in at times straight-faced, at times tongue-in-cheek rhyming verse. Rakoff’s insistence on multi-syllable verse throughout much of the book infuses the whole with a peculiar sense of humor. 

An example of the multi-syllabic rhyme: “She’s aware that her dress makes the other girls laugh / As they congregate over the mimeograph” (43).  There are also a few instances where the reader will involuntarily go “That’s NOT a real word!” and these, too, contribute to the lightness of this book. Example: “locals who / Insisted on the toppest of drawers” (75), and included in the wonderful rhyming pair here: “Sally was truly the bestest of eggs, / She’d spend hours massaging the chicken-bone legs / Of Cliff’s unresponsive but darting-eyed father” (33). There are many fun rhyme pairs to be found here (“hardly be duller” rhymed with “bright Technicolor”), as well as a few that might make you cringe a little, but usually in service of the plot.

Also worth mentioning are the colorful, boldly drawn illustrations throughout the book, courtesy of Seth, the same artist who illustrates Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions series (which, I’m sorry to report, is not as enjoyable as the wonderful Series of Unfortunate Events, but the art is nice).

Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys paints Mary Magdalen with red hair.

Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys paints Mary Magdalen with red hair.

What’s this novel in verse about? As my title suggests, it’s about relationships, about connecting and failing to connect, losing connection and randomly connecting. It’s about love and people. How much more vague could I possibly get? Specifically, it is about a set of people who are all connected in some way.

First, we witness the birth of the red-haired Margaret, who the nurse immediately assumes will be trouble. Hers is not a happy life: as a baby, she accompanies her mother to work (hidden between coats) at a slaughterhouse in Chicago. Her brief stint in a school run by nuns is such an ordeal, she feels relieved, even glad when she gets to quit school and work at the slaughterhouse at age 11. All is well (relatively) until her mother falls in love with a violent drunk named Frankie, who also works at the slaughterhouse. When Margaret’s body begins to change with early puberty, he rapes her, and the girl is shell-shocked. Her mother has only this to say: “Filthy water will seek its own level, / What did I expect, with that hair o’ the devil… […] And so, as I feared, I’ve a girl from the gutter” (14). A friendly neighbor smuggles Margaret onto a freight train so she can escape, and she never comes back. This happens about 1920.

Next, we meet Clifford’s mother who keeps retelling the story of her trip to Europe when she was a girl and her father still had money. She raises Clifford with these stories and mementoes of the trip to the point that he is almost ready to believe he went, too. Clifford, as we’ll discover, is the grandson of a man who is kind of Margaret on the freight train. As a boy, he likes to spend time with his awkward cousin Helen while their mothers get drunk. Eventually he takes a photo of Helen, whom he poses bare-chested, half out of her bathing suit, holding two mandarin oranges in front of her breasts. Both feel this is an artful picture, and there is no sexual tension between the two. Clifford already knows that he is different from other boys. This, I reckon, is about 1950.

Grown-up Helen gets the next section of the book. She is an office worker, and when her boss starts making advances, she is not disinclined. They have an affair (every Friday) for about two years, “’til their actions begat / What such actions are wont to when caution’s ignored.” He pays for her abortion and after this, is cold toward her. She tries to get to his heart through his son, by saving all the colorful international stamps and cutting them out and giving them to him to take home to his son every week. One day, she gives him a manila envelope that does not contain stamps. She waits. Nothing happens. She has a drunk melt-down at the company Christmas-do which nobody really seems to remember later, and she doesn’t get fired because, who cares. This may be the late 70s, I’m guessing.

Meanwhile, Clifford has moved on. He’s moved to San Francisco and is living the gay life to the fullest. Since his career as an artist didn’t pan out the way he thought, he focuses his creative energies on his pornographic gay underground comic Captain Cocksure and Throbbin’, which doesn’t impress the homophobic Blanche Tilley, but this is San Francisco, so deal with it, he argues.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti's "Venus" (Lizzie Siddal)

Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s “Venus” (Lizzie Siddal)

Two new characters, first Susan and then Nathan, are introduced. Susan, for once, is not directly connected except for the fact that she hooks up with Nathan. She is a social climber and nouveau riche, sporting a Christian Lacroix dress as she hangs around art galleries and happenings. Her relationship with Nathan is at a dead end (at least as far as she is concerned) so she decides to sleep with his best friend Josh as a means of revenge for Nathan’s indifference. Next thing we know, Nathan is invited to give a toast at Susan and Josh’s wedding, as a cruel joke of Susan’s. He gives a most peculiar speech and leaves.

In the mean time, the 80s have arrived, and with them the Aids epidemic. Cliff watches helplessly as his friends die, then has symptoms himself. Susan has changed her name to suit her career, and her marriage is breaking up because Susan/Sloan cannot bear Josh’s mother Hannah, who has severe Alzheimer’s: “One Hannah Hint seems to be all that it takes / For Sloan’s inner Lexus to slam on the brakes” (93). Susan/Sloan makes one last attempt to get something out of her marriage: she wants Josh to buy a new house.

Cliff dies. Susan/Sloan changes her name again, this time (presumably) because she has an epiphany, so now she is Shulamit. In a complete 180 from her wealth-loving style thus far, she divorces Josh and takes the children to the Holy Land / to a settlement which (I assume) is near Bethlehem. (I may be wrong on this.)

Josh is left with a tiny apartment full of boxes. This is where it all comes together: One of the boxes is labeled “Ted’s Stuff.” Ted died when his son Josh was a small boy, so small that he has barely any recollection of his father. In the box, among other things, are the stamps Helen had saved for her boss’s son (Josh), as well as the manila envelope he never opened. Josh opens the envelope and finds the photograph Clifford took when Helen was a young girl, sixty years earlier. “[The picture was] so present and vivid, alive. It / Was not classic ‘cheesecake.’ More artwork, more private. / She was holding two oranges, as though […] making some offering / […] not sex, at all, but simply pure joy” (113).

Millais' "Bridesmaid" -- my favorite Pre-Rapahelite painting. Also red-haired.

Millais’ “Bridesmaid” — my favorite Pre-Rapahelite painting. Also red-haired and featuring a mandarin orange (bottom, middle).

Yes, it’s a complex plot, in a way. That’s why I think the description “novel in verse” is more than apt. Stuff like this happens in novels.

Recurring themes that connect across the parts this book are instances of drawing / art / murals, as well as Yiddish words. There’s also the theme of power play in relationships / abuse of power.

It’s a cool book, spanning generations in a matter just over a hundred pages, and connecting a diverse set of characters across America. I really enjoyed reading this book; in fact, I read it in one sitting today. The language is funny at times, interesting other times, and there are many vivid images (like Clifford’s mom’s description of her first French kiss, or the grittiness and smell of the slaughterhouse where Margaret and her mother work).

 

P.S. If the phrase “Only connect.” seems vaguely familiar to you, but you can’t place it, it may be that you came across it in the context of E.M. Forster and Howards End, which is also about connections. In fact, there are a few parallels.

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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