LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH is David Rakoff's posthumous and only novel. Known chiefly for his essays in bestsellers like FRAUD, DON'T GET TOO COMFORTABLE and HALF EMPTY, and his appearances on NPR's "This American Life," Rakoff challenged himself and blew up his form for his final work: a beautiful, bittersweet, haunting novel written in rhyming couplets.
The novel covers generations from the early 20th-century birth of red-haired Margaret and her struggles with her mother's abusive boyfriend to the modern-day Josh, trying to rediscover himself after losing his mother to dementia and his wife and children to her whims.
"This bold novel is the rare work that shoots for the stars and reaches them. David Rakoff's writing has always been full of wit, observation and humor. Here, he generously bestows all those qualities on fictional characters for the first time."
In between, Rakoff introduces memorable characters such as Cliff, a young boy who grows up to be a painter in sexual revolution-era San Francisco and his cousin Helen, who eventually lands a job in Manhattan and has a brief, sad affair with her boss. There's also Nathan, whose girlfriend leaves him for his best friend and later is forced to give the toast at their wedding. We follow the newlyweds Josh and Susan as they deal with Josh's mother's dementia.
Despite the novel's short length and large cast, the reader becomes attached to Margaret, Cliff, Helen, Sally and Nathan and to their interconnected, weaving stories. The narration follows each one for a time, and while never first person, it represents the point of view of each character, strengthening the bond between the reader and each character.
Their melancholy stories are relatable because Rakoff deftly mixes the sad, distressing, heartbreaking moments in life --- career problems, dying parents, physical abuse, romantic rejection, the struggles of coming out, the AIDs crisis, public humiliation --- with laughs and moments of true generosity from one character to another. A mother's love and understanding or kind words from an ex's father provide moments of levity.
Their stories will stay with the reader long after the book is read because, as in life, the good and bad, the sweet and sad are intermingled and inseparable. The unusual form of the book enhances this quality. Brutal things happen to the characters, but the lilting, lovely rhymes provide a cushion for the reader and hopefully to the character. In addition to the rhyming couplets, the book contains illustrations by cartoonist Seth. He perfectly and stylishly captures the characters’ faces, and also illustrates a photograph that lies at the center of the story. It continues to resurface both literally and in characters’ minds, meaning different things to each.
This bold novel is the rare work that shoots for the stars and reaches them. David Rakoff's writing has always been full of wit, observation and humor. Here, he generously bestows all those qualities on fictional characters for the first time. A true artist stretches his talent until his last work, and Rakoff has done just that. While he left us far too young at just 47, he left behind a great book in LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH.
Reviewed by Josh Mallory on July 19, 2013