Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When I bought David Sedaris' collection of essays, When You are Engulfed in Flames, as a Christmas present for my husband, I hadn't read anything by Sedaris but the reviews of this book had been fantastic and somehow I knew it would be his kind of thing. Happily, I was right. My husband raced through it in a day or so and then I got my greedy mits on the book.

Sedaris seems to be pretty well known to Americans but less so here in Australia (or maybe I'm betraying my ignorance?). All I can say is that I wish I had discovered him for myself sooner. Sedaris writes an almost perfect personal essay. It's a genre that doesn't seem that common these days and more's the pity.

Many of these essays made me laugh out loud. Sedaris has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour that allows him to share his personal humiliations with the reader in a way that only makes him more likeable. He is particualrly funny when writing about the gaps in understanding when he is in non-English speaking countries. For example, his struggles with the French language (Sedaris lives in France) reach a particularly funny peak when he describes how he answers all questions with 'd'accord' (meaning 'okay'). Using d'accord as a catch-all response to questions that he can't understand leads him into some very strange situations, one of which involves ending up in a doctor's waiting room full of well-dressed French people wearing only his underpants.

Sedaris is just as good at depicting other characters that he encounters. One of my favourites is his abrasive, outspoken New York neighbour, Helen, who has lived in her apartment for 50 years and reserves her right to say whatever she likes about anyone ("Stick it up your ass," she tells Sedaris, "I'm not your goddamn mother." When he points out a friend of his on Oprah).

Sedaris and his partner Hugh are listening one of Sedaris' first appearances on NPR when Helen knocks on their door:
"Listen," [Hugh] whispered. "David is on the radio."

"So what?" Helen said. "A lot of people are on the radio." Then she handed him an envelope and asked if we'd mail in her stool sample. "It's not the whole thing, just a smear," she told him.

His portrait of the foul-mouthed, angry, opinionated Helen could have been played for laughs at Helen's expense, however like in many of these essays, Sedaris ultimately reveals the humanity and vulnerability of his subject, as well as his affection for her.

It's this more serious side to the essays that makes them really outstanding. They are not just descriptions of funny incidences. Each essay comes back at the end to close with a thoughtful point, a kind of 'a ha!' moment that brings the whole essay together and makes us realise that we are not, for example, just reading an essay about a taxi driver who quizzes Sedaris on his sex life, but actually considering how easy it is to feel superior to others. Sedaris makes his writing seem utterly effortless and yet anyone who has tried to write this sort of thing knows how hard it is to achieve such an understated style. This is elegant, funny, intelligent writing, and, really, what more could you want?


Sarah said...

I've been vaguely aware of David Sedaris, but avoided him as I thought he might be taking cheap shots at people he knew. I love good personal essays though, so will try him. Speaking of good personal essays, have you read Anne Fadiman?

Leah said...

Thank you for your review, I like the sound of this book so will look out for it.

Michelle said...

I've read so many reviews of Sedaris's work that I can't help but be intrigued by it. Must hunt around for a copy...

Sarah said...

I'm in America, but I just discovered David Sedaris, too. Well, I KNEW about him, but hadn't actually read him. He's hilarious. Love your blog, and The Crimson Petal is super good, but will be interested to hear what you say about the ending. I found it a little lacking. Happy Reading!

kimbofo said...

Sounds interesting... While I'm aware of Sedaris, I wasn't aware that this book is non-fiction. Glad you enjoyed it. That Helen character sounds like a right hoot! LOL.

Anonymous said...

I'd also never heard of Sedaris prior to this book. Maybe it's an Aus thing, given that he has published quite a few titles and I've never heard of any of them? Though judging from the crowd he pulled on a recent tour here, it might just be me! lol!

jess said...

Thanks for all your comments.

Sarah, I haven't read Anne Fadiman but thanks for the recommendation. I'll keep an eye out for her. Hope you enjoy Sedaris.

Leah, glad you like the sound of the book. I hope you enjoy it too.

Michelle, he certainly is getting lots of reviews and all I can say is the praise is well earned.

Sarah, glad you find him hilarious too. I had to read out so many bits to my husband (even though he'd already read it!). I'm not that far into The Crimson Petal- your comment has intrigued me! Will let you know what I think of the ending when I get there. So far I'm not sure what I think of it.

jess said...

Kim, Helen is a total crack up. I secretly think I'd love to be like her when I'm old.

Antipodean Owl, well, at least it's not just me!

Lesley said...

I love, love, love David Sedaris! My favorite of his is Me Talk Pretty One Day. If you can, get your hands on a live track of him reading his stories - it's even better to hear him invoke the voices of his sisters, brother and all the rest.

Claire said...

I thought Helen was so fascinating.