Contemptuous Consumption

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, October 11, 2005


By David Rakoff

Doubleday. 223 pp. $22.95

The best piece in David Rakoff's generally amusing and smart collection of essays is called "What Is the Sound of One Hand Shopping?" and has to do with "a Temple of Food, a well-known restaurant in northern California whose owner is world famous as an advocate for humane and sustainable agribusiness, as well as being a renowned chef in her own right." Okay: We all know who that is. But that's not the point. The point is the clientele, which Rakoff nails head-on and dead-on:

"Lenny Bruce described flamenco as being an art form wherein a dancer applauds his own [behind]. There's a lot of flamenco going around the room tonight. Smiles of mutual congratulation beam from table to table. Glasses are raised. We celebrate not only our own small part in this incremental triumph over factory farming that just being here this evening represents but also our elevated capacities. It takes an exceptionally fine tongue and palate, you must admit, to appreciate a dessert of a single date. One so very different from the cratered, preservative-strafed mouths of the masses. I overheard one bartender say to the other, 'I think I'm going to stay in this weekend and roast garlic.' "

Food snobbery, in other words, has reached entirely new heights, or depths. Rakoff takes note of a brief article in the New York Times reporting about "ice cubes frozen from a river in the Scottish Highlands and overnighted to your doorstep -- the perfect complement to your single malt" and properly says that this "demands . . . either a great big 'April Fool's!' scrawled across the top, or a prefatory note of apology that such a service even exists." As he says:

"Surely when we've reached the point where we're fetishizing sodium chloride and water, and subjecting both to the kind of scrutiny we used to reserve for choosing an oncologist, it's time to admit that the relentless questing for that next undetectable gradation of perfection has stopped being about the thing itself and crossed over into a realm of narcissism so overwhelming as to make the act of masturbation look selfless."

That's Rakoff at his best. He's funny (the line from Lenny Bruce is a classic), he's smart, and not merely does he not suffer fools gladly, he doesn't suffer them at all. Yes, he has an inexplicable passion for misusing "like," and occasionally his prose could use just a bit of tightening, but he's almost always on target. Thus, for example, in the same essay he takes note of the appetite among certain overprivileged and self-pampered Americans for "what the French call Nostalgie de la Boue : a fond yearning for the mud," also known as slumming. There's nothing new about it: The French coined a phrase for it because so many of them are so good at it, and back in the 1920s, wealthy Manhattanites in their furs and top hats delighted in venturing to Harlem to show off their egalitarianism, which of course they never took back home to Sutton Place or Park Avenue. Rakoff is right, though, to sense that things have really gotten out of hand at a time when the rich have far too much money and far too much vanity.

Rakoff is in his early forties, a native Canadian who became a naturalized American citizen a few years ago, in part, he says, because "the cudgel-like Patriot Act" made him apprehensive about being arbitrarily evicted from the country he'd lived in for 22 years and because he wanted "to entrench and make permanent my relationship with New York, the great love of my life." "As a homosexual delivered by cesarean section," he writes, "I have spent my life at a double remove," and he is by nature cautious: "I am neither spontaneous nor ready for anything."

On the matter of spontaneity, it's difficult to reach firm conclusions on the evidence presented in "Don't Get Too Comfortable," but it's certainly true that though he may be willing to try just about anything, he often regrets doing so. Thus he flies to Belize to write about a Playboy photo shoot, but, having no interest in the female flesh amply on display, he soon finds that "I am not built for this heat and sunlight, and truth be told, I am a little bored." He flies on the Concorde, which he finds "more a triumph of consumption than of science," a "beautifully controlled yet hideously wasteful bonfire." Then, for contrast, he flies Hooters Air from Newark to Myrtle Beach and is surprised that even though the skimpily clad flight attendants "look like Olympic athletes representing the tackiest country on earth, which I guess they kind of are," they're perky and friendly, and the whole atmosphere is "congenial and casual," not exactly what one expects to find on an American airline these days.

Among other matters to which Rakoff directs his attention are the Log Cabin Republicans, "the largest gay and lesbian organization in the GOP," about whom he asks: "It's all well and good to stay in the institutions you care about, but wouldn't it be nice to feel that the institution, in turn, cared about you, or at least wasn't hellbent on your eradication or, failing that, the legislating away of your rights?" He expresses somewhat unexpected admiration for Martha Stewart -- "she advocates mastery and competence over purchase," which to my mind tells only a very small part of the story -- and he finds himself almost completely out of his element at a Paris fashion show. There he encounters, among other peculiarities, the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who "looks me up and down and dismisses me with the not super-kind, 'What can you write that hasn't been written already?' "

"He's absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try. The only thing I can come up with at that moment is that Lagerfeld's powdered white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn't. Also, not yet having undergone his alarming weight loss, and seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby . . . muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from the other end he [excretes] huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How's that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L.?"

Not bad, is what I'd say. The pleasures of reading what results when an exceedingly sharp pen encounters an exceedingly inviting target are not to be denied, and Rakoff offers many such delights in these pages. He also, by no means incidentally, has a humane view of human society at its most ordinary and unpretentious. But the bloated wallets and bloated egos are his subjects here, and he deflates them with precision and self-evident satisfaction.

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