David Rakoff, who died last year, shortly after finishing this book, was primarily an essayist. That fact makes this slim volume even more of an oddity to me. Why? Because the book is written in rhyming couplets. There is something about rhyming couplets that suggests lightness and humor--and many of Rakoff's lines are, in fact, quite funny, sometimes ribald--I mean, someone who rhymes pubic lice and paradise cannot be taken seriously, right?
Yet the story Rakoff weaves from couplet after couplet is quite serious, grappling with many of the societal issues of the 20th century. The first segment introduces us to Margaret, a 13-year-old girl working in a Chicago meat-packing plant in the 1920s. When her mother's boyfriend molests her, the mother puts her on a train--in a freight car, no less--to the West coast. Although we know she survives, Margaret mostly disappears after we meet Clifford's family. They live in LA in the 1950s. Clifford's dad has had a stroke; while his mother complains, she works and cares for her husband, encouraging her son to develop his artistic talent. Once a year, her sister Sally and her daughter Helen visit. Clifford does not understand why Helen cannot see her own beauty, but with him, she feels freer than with anyone else.
Clifford grows up to draw a comic strip and enjoy the free-wheeling life of a gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s, until his friends start dying; he, too, eventually succumbs to AIDS. Helen is an office worker in New York; after a long-term affair with her boss ends and she completely loses it at a company Christmas party, she becomes the office oddball, a subject of derision.
Next we meet the three members of a romantic trial--Nathan, his best-friend Josh, and his girlfriend (but soon-to-be Josh's wife) Susan. Susan journeys from ambitious young professional, to nouveau riche matron, to religious emigre; with each change in her world view, she changes her name as well. By the 1990s, she has left Josh to move to Israel, where she begins to feel another change coming on.
The stories are connected--Margaret makes a brief appearance in Clifford's story, as Clifford and Helen do in Josh, Susan, and Nathan's story. But the connections feel forced--just as the rhyming form does. While Rykoff's book has gotten a lot of positive reviews, I would not recommend it--unless you have a true love for anapestic tetrameter (okay, I admitted it, I got that term from the New Yorker review).
"For what seemed like hours, while always subjective
Was now so unknowable, flimsy, selective,
In thrall to the twists of his brain's involutions
The cranial mist and synaptic occlusions
He'd had to contend with since he'd had his stroke,
Like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.