An all-consuming obsession - with consuming

Essays

October 09, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

Don't Get Too Comfortable

David Rakoff

Doubleday / 240 pages

David Rakoff's new book is both a celebration and an indictment of the pampered lifestyle enjoyed by many Americans - or at least those with disposable income and high credit limits. He skewers the absurdity of our consumer fetishes with high thread counts and exotic olive oil and ice cubes frozen in the Scottish Highlands and overnighted to our doorsteps, while admitting that he is part of the very culture he lampoons.

He argues that the quest for perfection in all we consume has become narcissistic, and, even worse, that by indulging it we also confuse having nice things with moral virtue.

"We have become an army of multiply chemically sensitive, high maintenance princesses trying to make our way through a world full of irksome peas," Rakoff writes, not long after revealing that his own kitchen contains both French sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil. "Neither one of them makes me a good person," he notes. "They are mute and useless indicators of the content of my character."

Don't Get Too Comfortable is the name of this collection of essays, but, of course, we already have. In fact, it seems only Rakoff is unable to shake the guilt he feels at being part of a world-dominating culture and economy. During dinner at a Northern California restaurant renowned for its fresh, locally produced ingredients, he mocks one diner who says to another, "I was just told that they hadn't served that vinegar in twenty-four years!"

On one of the last flights of the Concorde, from London to New York, he is served filet mignon topped with caviar, smoked salmon, foie gras and a gooseberry. But he can't quite enjoy it, focusing instead on how the supersonic plane manages to skate across the Atlantic in three hours: "Burn twice as much fuel as a 747 and carry one quarter the payload. It is a beautifully controlled yet hideously wasteful bonfire."

He is at his best when he is at his most vicious. In Paris to cover the fashion shows for an unnamed magazine, he is stunned by the gluttony and the fact that there are women in this world who would pay $100,000 for a dress. After being insulted by the legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld, Rakoff describes him this way: "Seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, overfed, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he [excretes] huge, malodorous piles of tainted money."

If you think that's mean, you should see what he says about Barbara Bush!

Yet Rakoff, a Canadian who became American so he could vote against Barbara's son, has trouble holding it all together. What, for instance, does a lengthy piece on the Log Cabin Republicans have to do with the point of the book? An essay on a production of Puppetry of the Penis (the title says it all) is just tedious.

Many of the 15 essays in this collection are accounts of magazine stories Rakoff was commissioned to write. (He has written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, Vogue and Salon, among others.) If you don't know this going in, it can be somewhat confusing to wonder why, as a 40-year-old man, he is working as a cabana boy in Miami Beach. Halfway through the essay, he admits he's only there for three days for a story he's doing for a magazine. In Rakoff's first book, Fraud, he included an essay about taking a job at Barney's in which he posed as a Sigmund Freud in the store's Christmas display. He took that job for the money, not so he could write about it.

This is not to say that professional writers can't tell interesting stories about their lives. But Rakoff sometimes seems to be so fixated on the back story that the actual story gets lost. On several occasions in Don't Get Too Comfortable I realized it would have been much more interesting to read the magazine pieces themselves, rather than reading Rakoff's diary of reporting them.

In one essay, he notes that he used to identify with the "downtrodden seamstress" but has now thoroughly joined "the ranks of the imperious monstrocracy." It's a shame, because the seamstress probably has some worthwhile things to say.

Stephen Kiehl covers popular culture for The Sun.

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