For an individual who considers themselves “happy,” reading Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is an exercise in self-restraint. “Why” you may angrily shout at the lifeless novel “can’t she stop being so damned depressed?” Yet to read Rankine’s experimental offering as a melancholy diatribe would, I believe, to be missing her point.
This is perhaps best illustrated in the opening vignette concerning Rankine’s father and the death of his mother. The way Rankine describes her father, he is utterly racked with pain at receiving the news of his mother’s death. Her father’s grief, distraught as he may be, is simply a performance to the adolescent Rankine. She is no more connected to her father’s emotions following his loss than she would be trying to empathize with his frustration over filing tax returns. Quite simply she may empathize but she cannot sympathize.
Again, the ambulance driver that may or may not come to her door following a call to the suicide hotline cannot sympathize or understand the condition Rankine finds herself in. She does not want to kill herself, she’s already dead she explains. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely functions as a peculiar piece of art when one considers its a work on one’s essential lonesomeness in the face of death while embedded in a culture saturated with death.
Rankine’s inclusion of page 5’s note further illustrates this point. She includes a study which indicates that modern cinema depicts more deaths on the screen in an increasingly graphic fashion. These are the true performances Rankine talks about with relation to death. And as the inclusion at the beginning of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely indicates, life is not a spectacle and the sadness of the world, contrary to what Shakespeare may have said, is not a performance.
Thus, I find that some of the more abstract images of Rankine’s novel begin to make sense. Perhaps the blank T.V. emerges not as an embodiment of the author’s loneliness but an alternative to the hyper saturation which numbs our senses to the pain of others. Perhaps, in titling her work Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine is pleading that we, as readers, begin to understand that the pain and suffering we see others in will one day be our own. In that way, Rankine’s novel sheds its superficial air of dreariness and gains an altogether sentimental sheen. If the world is a spectacle and a massive sea of grief a proscenium than we as humans are all performing together.