Stranger worlds ignited
The trials of daily life are transformed in a wry and witty collection of essays, writes Linda Jaivin
THE world of David Sedaris is one in which parents happily leave their children in the care of a 60- year- old woman whose friends appear to have escaped from prison recently or to be on their way there, and who seemingly babysits only to ensure a supply of little people to scratch her back. It’s a place where, on the playing of a Kate Bush song, birds hurl themselves at windows and don’t stop until the author has covered every pane with pictures of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Donna Summer, who has her minuses but can really put the fear of God into a chaffinch. It is a small and perfectly formed, if somewhat perilous, planet full of strange joys, big laughs and startling revelations.
Four years after this prolific US comedian, playwright and essayist published his previous collection of personal essays, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim , he welcomes us back to Sedaris World with When You are Engulfed in Flames .
Sedaris portrays himself endearlingly as a somewhat bumbling, neurotic gnome who can’t decipher a bank statement, the sort of nervously shy person who prepares for conversations by
memorising interesting stories from the newspaper, and who stumbles on to adventure, misadventure or sometimes just the sofa. He has an almost Australian knack for celebrating and mythologising his failures, and a decidedly un- American astonishment at his successes.
A third of When You are Engulfed in Flames , The Smoking Section , describes one of these: giving up smoking. There is an essay about quitting written in 12 un- programmable steps, a key one of which was his realisation that if he remained a smoker he’d never be able to stay in a nice hotel again.
This is followed by a three- month diary written in Japan, where he went to quit, and an after essay on the post- smoking life.
To compensate for the cigarettes he smoked while writing, Sedaris began rolling index cards into little tubes. ‘‘ I put one in my mouth when I sit down to write, and then I slowly chew it to a paste and swallow it. I’m now up to six a day and am wondering if I should switch to a lighter, unlined brand.’’
The author recently and not surprisingly described himself as a huge exaggerator. He said he classifies his writing as nonfiction, because 97 per cent is true. While suspecting the index
Sedaris portrays himself as a bumbling, neurotic gnome who can’t decipher a bank statement
card ingestion falls into the remaining 3 per cent, I sincerely hope that his mother once really did remark, ‘‘ If you think that was fun, you never saw your grandfather with his teeth out.’’
The weakest of the 21 essays that precede The Smoking Section is the one about his university days, which is almost sophomoric in its embroideries. Yet even that contains some gemlike passages.
Overall, the collection is classic Sedaris: conversational but word- perfect, meandering yet coherent. Topics include the familiar one of his eccentric family, the mysterious chemistry of human relations, and life in New York, Paris and Normandy ( which he describes as West Virginia without the possums).
The theme of mortality weaves through these essays like a slightly goofy Grim Reaper with a tickler instead of a scythe. Crybaby , about sitting on a trans- Atlantic flight next to a man weeping over the death of his mother, includes a hysterical anecdote about his Greek grandmother’s chainsaw- like farts at table and a discussion of ice cream sundaes in business class, and it still manages to finish on a genuinely poignant note.
Another tells of his relationship with a Tegenaria spider, April. It begins with his delight in her web- building outside his window in Normandy. Unwilling to leave her when he goes to Paris, he takes her with him. It ends with him forced to lurk around rubbish bins in the Luxembourg Gardens in order to rustle up enough flies for her to eat. April in Paris is an untidy parable about connection and why sometimes you have to let go the one you love.
The title of this collection comes from a sign in a Japanese hotel room giving instructions in the apparently likely event of an emergency. When You are Engulfed in Flames , by contrast, doesn’t offer much in the way of instructions.
Sedaris shares his list of don’ts, which include: never fall asleep in a dumpster; never underestimate a bee; never drive a convertible behind a flat bed truck . . . get old . . . get drunk near a train; and never, under any circumstances, cut off your air supply while masturbating.
There is also the odd helpful hint. On a visit to Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, where he’d gone to discover if a dingo was something that might overrun a pond, fly in a window or simply race past with a baby in its mouth, he misplaced his boyfriend and panicked. He concludes: ‘‘ A zoo is a good place to make a spectacle of yourself, as the people around you have creepier, more photogenic things to look at, like a gorilla who pleasures himself while eating a head of iceberg lettuce ( though hopefully not while cutting off his own air supply).’’
Emergencies are likely. You may one day accidentally expel a cough lozenge on to the lap of the stranger sleeping on the plane seat next to you, with whom you have already quarrelled. Or you may find you care deeply about the people who annoy and confound you the most. In a sense, that’s what this collection, and Sedaris’s work in general, is all about.
Linda Jaivin is a Sydney- based writer.