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?