Stranger worlds ig­nited

The tri­als of daily life are trans­formed in a wry and witty col­lec­tion of es­says, writes Linda Jaivin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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