David Rakoff sets out to defend unhappiness in the funniest way possible in "Half Empty" (Doubleday, $24.95), his new collection of essays. Rakoff, the author of "Fraud" and "Don't Get Too Comfortable," finds himself (and puts himself) in plenty of strange places in the book - the Erotic Exotic ball, an apartment in one of Brooklyn's scariest neighborhoods, Disney World - but he approaches each of them in a style all his own.
What ties these essays together?
The book is a defense of pessimism and melancholy and all those emotions that are tarred with the negative brush, and because of that, expunged from the cultural conversation. But they have their uses, and can even be beautiful at times.
One of the funniest sections in the book is your takedown of "Rent," a musical that a lot of people love.
Yeah, there's a sort of romantic notion of the artist [in that show] that doesn't seem to involve doing any work. Far more than the "Rent" takedown, though, I wanted to capture what it takes to be creative, and how that feels. It's typically sitting and tolerating oneself long enough to turn out a first draft that necessarily has to be bad. How different that is from most other tasks, which get easier as one gets older.
You talk about the weirdest, worst aspects of being in New York in that same essay, but you really seem to love it, too.
The day I arrived here, at age 17, I felt like this was my home, although it took many years before it actually was my home. The city seems less unique than it once was - but everywhere seems less unique than it once was, and part of that is the velocity of the information.
How do you mean?
Well, there's that old apocryphal story of the guy who comes to a small town and discovers all these amazing antiques in a backyard. Now, everyone knows the value of everything. [Pause] This makes it sound like all I care about is traveling to small villages and gulling rubes out of their valuables.
When you're writing an essay, how does it evolve? Do you plot it out fully, or do you just sit down and go?
I wish I were better at outlining things and plotting them in advance, because it would be a less torturous kind of riding-a-moving-bus-holding-on-with-my-teeth thing. The first agenda is that it be a classically familiar essay - which is a 19th century idea - that begins in the personal and ends in the universal.
You write about the cancer in your arm. How are you dealing with it, and can you talk about what caused it?
Well, it was from radiation that I received 23 years ago for lymphoma. I'm fine, but I'm in chemo right now, and since the book ended I've had something like three surgeries, so it's an ongoing process. One lives in a state with some baseline uncertainty, but for now I'm absolutely fine and weathering the chemo easily.
David Rakoff reads from "Half Empty" Saturday at 5 p.m. at BookHampton, 41 Main St., East Hampton; 631-324-4939, bookhampton.com