Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

By David Rakoff

There are a number of noteworthy things about Montreal-born David Rakoff’s debut novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It is, for starters, both Rakoff’s first novel (he had written three previous volumes of essays) and his last book, as he died of cancer just after completing it. It is also illustrated by Guelph artist Seth, and his full-page portraits of the main characters, profiles in gray that makes them seem like so many carved busts in a gallery of antiquities as much as snapshots from a photo album, nicely complement Rakoff’s generation-spanning chronicle of twentieth-century America. Seth is a master of revealing depth of character through just the set of a mouth or an eyebrow. Even a baby seems both innocent of and alarmed at the trials she will have to face as an adult.

But what makes the book most remarkable is the fact that it is a novel in verse. The long poem has been on the endangered species list for decades now, and its close cousin the narrative poem is an even rarer bird. But Rakoff tells the entire story here in rambling, often run-on, couplets. The metrical flow is such that if you read it aloud (which is worth trying just for a page or two) you don’t get the sense of a rocking rhyme scheme at all. There is a frequent use of enjambment and feminine line endings, making the rhymes almost invisible on occasion. In fact, the times when you notice the couplets the most tend to be when Rakoff stretches for a particularly risky or striking combination, like matching “pubic lice” with “paradise,” or in scenes like the one describing an abortion: “She lay back and placed her feet in the cold stirrups / And faced toward the window, all birdsong and chirrups.”

Despite the lighthearted tone of the verse, Rakoff’s representative and loosely linked American lives make for a pretty grim, unhappy bunch. Victims and outsiders, they are swept along toward inevitable illness and death. The faces become ghost-like and haunted as they confront harder facts and a colder reality, their best days all behind them, like spots of time now existing only in memories and boxes of old photos. Optimism is exposed as a delusion, albeit a necessary one. In the end it’s best to live in the now, and understand that life is only passing through various stages, a journey and not a destination.

Review first published August 10, 2013.

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