Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

sedarisI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here
As I have previously noted (in my review of Bossypants), I have an unfortunate inability to connect with a lot of comedy. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s true of most comedy media, whether books or movies or stand up or sitcoms.

I do, however, like David Sedaris, at least when he has contributed material to This American Life, which I listen to entirely too much. He’s clever and funny, and knows how to exaggerate events in order to capture their true essence. For example, in Sedaris’ classic essay about being a Santa Elf, “The Santaland Diaries,” which was originally recorded and broadcast for NPR’s Morning Edition, I believe, and re-broadcast several times on This American Life, as well as being reprinted in two of Sedaris’ books and various magazines, Sedaris has this interaction with a mother and son:

The woman grabbed my arm and said, ‘You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn’t start behaving immediately, then Santa is going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.’ I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you’re bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn’t behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. “All your appliances, Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.”

The woman got a worried look on her face and said, ‘All right. That’s enough.’ I said, ‘He’s going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.’ The mother said, ‘No, that’s enough. Really.’

Now, obviously, I don’t know if Sedaris said all this to a child. It seems a bit much to me. But I would not be at all surprised if he said at least some of it. The rest is exaggeration for effect. But I’ve been a Christmas elf. I worked in retail for a lot of years. And a little part of me just wants that story to be true so badly. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t, but you know what? He got it exactly right. At his best, that’s what makes Sedaris so great: he makes these caricatures that are obviously caricatures, but are also exactly right.

When it came to When You Are Engulfed in Flames, though, my reaction was a bit mixed. Flames is a collection of essays, most of which have been pre-published in periodicals, and most of which pertain to Sedaris’ life as an American living in France with his boyfriend Hugh. What I realized, reading this book rather than listening to Sedaris perform it, is that Sedaris’ caricature humor really works best when he’s writing about people other than himself. When he turns his pen in his direction, it sometimes creates this weird self-conscious meta thing where Real David is writing about Caricature David and Real David knows that Caricature David is being ridiculous/isn’t really like that, but is writing it that way anyway. For the writing to be both self-aware and self-oblivious is a distracting, at least to me. When he’s writing about a third party, this works, because he has no access to (and doesn’t have any reason to talk about) how the person in question sees themselves, or their own internal contradictions. But when writing about himself, it’s a little problematic.

The other, much more minor, irksome detail is that he provides very little contextual explanation for even the simplest things. For example, Hugh is only introduced in the beginning as “Hugh,” not “my boyfriend Hugh,” or any other relationship signifier, and if I didn’t know who he was from listening to This American Life I probably would’ve been confused through the first two essays before I finally picked up on the context. And he never, ever, explains why he and Hugh moved to France to begin with, or why they lived in both Paris and Normandy. Did they just feel like it? Did one of them have a job? Is Hugh actually French? Were I reading just a single essay, I wouldn’t necessarily need all the background, but over the course of a book-length collection of essays, I miss it. And it wouldn’t have been that hard, either. Two sentences added in to one of the essays. A short introduction. Something.

On the other hand, Sedaris is enormously successful at bringing me along with him, and having me believe in his actions. Sedaris is a very different person than me–I can tell he expresses emotions differently, he’s looking for different sorts of relationships, he has wildly different interests, and a different temperament. He’s more cynical than me. He keeps pet spiders, for crying out loud. I do not read a lot of books where the narrator and myself are so disparate. I’m even less likely to connect with, believe in, or like such a narrator. But Sedaris pulls me in, even while I’m disagreeing with everything he’s doing, I understand why he’s doing it.

All in all, Sedaris is a talented guy. I have no idea where this book ranks amongst his others, or how it compares. I’m guessing Flames isn’t his best, but I don’t know. If you like him, it’s worth reading. If you like wry, self-deprecating humor based out of insecurity and perceptiveness, Sedaris is worth trying (and if you don’t like it, hey, it’s a collection of essays–you don’t have to read them all). I don’t know if I recommend reading this book, but I do recommend checking out the material he’s released on This American Life.

And the Santaland essay. Listen to the extended version on This American Life. Totally worth it.

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