Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Don't Get Too Comfortable, Final

by David Rakoff
Broadway Books

The subtitle to David Rakoff’s new collection of essays Don’t Get Too Comfortable is a long one: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems. I think, however, it would have been more apt if he’d called it ...and Other First World Absurdities, which is really the over-arching point of these essays: to spot-light how the privileged of the privileged first-world residents spend their time and money when they don’t have to concern themselves with where their next meal is coming from or with the genocidal war next door. Do they spend it on feeding the hungry, on clothing the poor, or on saving rainforests? Ha, ha - get real. They aren’t adopting third-world children (Madonna and Angelina Jolie notwithstanding); they’re not making documentary movies on the dangers of global warming (Al Gore not included).

In Rakoff’s world - in our world, really - if the privileged of the privileged are making movies it’s soft-core porn with hot Latino women. If they’re flying overseas it’s to attend an exhibition of the couture collections in Paris. If they’re having existential considerations on life after death, it’s to work out the logistics of how they’ll survive after having their cryogenically frozen bodies resurrected. But is any of this news really? Even the least informed of us know that our privileged first-world culture has the tendency to drift toward the self-absorbed and the vapid. So what's the point of these essays, which tell us things we already know? In many ways, it’s easy to get the feeling that Rakoff is only preaching to choir.

But part of the pleasure I think in reading Rakoff’s essays is his ability to make the reader seem as if she’s inside the joke, not a part of it. It’s the feeling of feeling superior without really being superior. He invites you laugh at those nutty folk who pay $36 a kilo for sea salt harvested in France and $300 for the formula to a two-week long fast. Ha, ha - oh, you crazy first-worlders, you. But before we get too comfortable (or begin to feel uncomfortable) with our self-satisfied superiority, the thing that keeps this collection from being a nasty behind-the-back snicker at the Richers is that, by the collection’s conclusion, the reader discovers that he hasn’t been laughing at them after all - he’s been laughing at himself. The joke isn’t on them, it’s on you. The clue is on the cover: Don’t get too comfortable.

In a perfect microcosm of the effect of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, Rakoff imagines “an impoverished seamstress, her fingers bloody from hours of painstaking needlework...being dressed down by an outraged couturier" in the beginning of the essay “I Can’t Get it For You Wholesale”:

“I asked for camellias. These are not camellias,” he says, ripping out the stitches. “Do it again.” He flings the garment at her, an errant bugle bead catching her right in the eye. She weeps softly. The designer’s teacup poodle, Salo Meneo, yaps agitatedly throughout.

Later, as Rakoff roams his hotel room in Paris he writes:
I have a sitting room with a tasseled damask sofa, a passageway with walnut-doored closets leading to a bedroom, and beyond that a bathroom with a claw-footed tub. I count no fewer than three vases of roses...Looking out to the central courtyard filled with statues, I realize that I have crossed the Parliament floor. I used to identify with the downtrodden seamstress in that story I told myself, but I have now thoroughly joined the ranks of the imperious monstrocracy.

Rakoff’s witty insight into not only the “culture of excess” but also into his own heart and mind makes this slim volume a funny and informative read. It’s not hard to find a great laugh-out-loud sentence followed by the deepest insight into the human heart. If Rakoff’s collection is the seat of being uncomfortable, I’ll sit in it any day.

My previous post on this book can be found here.


Matt said...

Realizing how privileged we are is a difficult thing to handle. You understand how much you have yet you still find yourself wanting more. It definitely makes me uncomfortable but apparently not enough to make me change. And that is what makes it so hard to handle.

Gentle Reader said...

I love the term "monstocracy". I'm going to steal that one...

And I agree with Matt on the whole thing making me uncomfortable, but not enough to change. Maybe I'll have to read the book and make myself more uncomfortable :)

J.S. Peyton said...

Matt and Gentle Reader diddo to what both of you are saying. It's the old adage: More is never enough. I, frankly, like being comfortable - who doesn't to some extent? - and in fact I wish I was a whole lot comfortable than I am, though I know there are millions of people who would willingly trade places with me. It is disturbing when I think about it but, I think as long as we appreciate just how lucky we are and try to help out those less fortunate somehow, it could go a long towards assuging the guilt. Being able to laugh at the world's absurdities goes a long too. : )