Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Review: Engulfed in Flames
In the Gay Men's Contract that one has to sign upon coming out of the closet, Section V ("writing") lists the names of gay authors one must like. In Sub-Section E ("memoirs"), we find names like Quentin Crisp, Augusten Burroughs, and David Sedaris. Fortunately, the Contract can be negotiated, because with all the other Sections on topics like fashion, interior decorating, and musical theater, it's impossible for any man to master the entirety of gay culture! And so it appears in my Contract that David Sedaris's name had been crossed off.
Years ago, I had read Holidays on Ice, a collection of Christmas-themed memoirs. I guess I had high expectations to be laughing aloud, because I was disappointed. Admittedly, "The Santaland Diaries" about when he worked as an elf is hysterical, but the rest of the stories just seemed to sad. Sedaris has made a successful career for himself writing about his dysfunctional life and his dysfunctional family. It's like airing dirty laundry on Jerry Springer, but doing it with sarcasm and a lesson at the end. But that isn't always what happens, and sometimes his meandering tales never resolve themselves. There are aspects to Sedaris's life that, quite frankly, are tragic, and while laughing about these things can heal wounds, I wonder sometimes if the exploitation of his family is pointing a finger without generating healing.
Admittedly, I have not read anything else by Sedaris until now. Back in August when my friend JM and I were heading to Provincetown, I said to him I was going to read Michael Cunningham's The Hours, to which JM said, "You're reading a book about suicide? This is a vacation! Read something light!" He offered to lend me Sedaris's new book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and I agreed. I hardly had time to read while we were away, so I moved very slowly through it over the next couple of months, usually reading on subway rides, finally finishing it during lunch in the staff cafeteria.
Now JM did tell me that this book was a little less funny as compared to his other ones, so I can only hope that if I go back and read them I will be laughing more than I did with this one. That said, Sedaris has great wit and describes some very funny people and events. The crotchety old windbag Sicilian neighbor Helen in "That's Amore" was insane. And from "Solution to Saturday's Puzzle" the following is probably one of the best opening sentences I've ever read: "On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I'd been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed, as I remember it, on the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest." I mean, that is one funny episode, almost right out of a sitcom.
Perhaps that's what I find odd about this book, that many of his tales read like they're pilots for comedies. I've been told by people that you have to hear him actually read his own work, that it changes your entire experience of the tale, and that you're bursting in pain from how funny he is. Sedaris is famous for his public readings, which also makes me wonder which comes first for him: the story or the reading? Some of the tales seem like they are meant to be read aloud, not consumed in private. Is he selling out? What about the integrity of the text itself?
The darkness that permeates this book is self-evident in the cover illustration of a skull smoking a cigarette (which, oddly enough, is also a tattoo on my brother's arm, although his skull is smoking a joint). Skulls are memento mori, reminders of mortality, of impending death. Sedaris is now just over 50 years old, and this book reads like someone examining aspects of his life at mid-century. Death is a recurring feature of this book, whether it's about the aforementioned Italian woman, his mother dying from lung cancer, or his own perceptions of the body after working in a medical examiner's office watching autopsies. But the cover illustration also is significant for one of the best parts of this book, the final essay "The Smoking Section." At nearly 100 pages, this essay alone could be appreciated as a short book. The premise is Sedaris's battle to quit smoking, but he divides its tone into discussions of how smoking impacted his entire life socially and culturally, and then how his boyfriend and he relocated to Tokyo to actually quit and jumpstart his life with new distractions, like learning Japanese. The essay has high points and low points, sad moments and funny moments, but at the heart of it are his observations about society and his personal battles over all of his addictions. There are lessons in there for smokers, former smokers, and non-smokers.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames is classic Sedaris, a little more mature and serious, but still full of the wit people love and appreciate. Who else can get away with creating a word like "snobitude"? Will I read more of Sedaris now? Well, let's just say I'm erasing the crossing-out on my Gay Men's Contract. The truth of the matter is that I'm actually a little jealous of Sedaris. Not of his experiences, but of his success. And that is me airing just a little bit of my own laundry.