Saturday, September 27, 2008
Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris
The other night I sat in bed and read David Sedaris's newest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, in one big gulp. Like his earlier books, this is a series of essays about Sedaris's life--in fact, though he admits that his work is only "realish" and "97 percent true", his body of work feels like it adds up to one long memoir. This book was also hilarious, as all of Sedaris's books are. I kept laughing aloud, which made my husband look up from his book and say, "What?", which meant I had to read the paragraph to him. But it was okay, because the jokes were often better the second time around, and spoken aloud.
Sedaris's books often make me laugh out loud, but I'll admit the laughter is sometimes uncomfortable. This is because Sedaris is not just self-deprecating, he is unrelentingly honest. He says the stuff the rest of us are afraid to say, or at least to say out loud. And he has a finely-tuned sense of the absurdity of human nature. His observations often reveal his acceptance of the dark side of humanity, too. Yep, dark and absurd, that's what we people are, and Sedaris doesn't shy away from showing it.
Sedaris is the ultimate outsider. He writes about his painful and painfully funny childhood, his adolescence, his parents, his addiction to drugs, his homosexuality, his marginal jobs, his life as an expat, and it feels as though all of this has created an outsider in Sedaris, or it all comes from Sedaris feeling like an outsider originally. It's chicken and egg, I suppose, but that outsider's viewpoint is what makes Sedaris so funny and so sad. It's a wonderful perspective for a diarist to have, and while Sedaris's writing is self-aware and sometimes a little depressing, it's never bitter.
This book is also about mid-life, as Sedaris is approaching 50. He is obsessed with death and dying, and his mid-life crisis also includes his attempt to quit smoking. The end of the book is devoted to the three months Sedaris and his partner Hugh Hamrick spent in Japan while Sedaris was trying to quit smoking. Again, his outsider's perspective spears the absurdities of Japanese culture, but he also spears himself, as a westerner trying to learn the language and failing miserably, and trying but never succeeding in understanding Japan.
The outsider in me loved this book and will always like Sedaris's work. It's not a comforting read for anyone approaching middle age, but it will make you laugh.