When You Are Engulfed in Flames — David Sedaris (2008)

Back Bay Books, Paperback, 323 p., $15.99

I read a review in The New Yorker a while back of a book that’s on my reading list this summer which outlines the history of memoir. In that review, critic Daniel Mendelsohn describes memoir as:

a drunken guest at a wedding, […] constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention.

Wow, what a ringing endorsement for a genre. Seeing as I now teach young minds how to appreciate a public divulging of family secrets and a printed, mass-disseminated embarrassment of old friends, I’ll now defend memoir as a genre.

The question: is memoir more for the author, or for the audience? My answer: it’s for both. The author goes through a (sometimes solipsistic) process of self-discovery, unearthing truths about his or her inner life that resonate with the reader, who gets to experience the author’s life and be entertained by the content and style of the piece. The author need not be of note, though another dimension of enjoyment is added when the reader can compare conceptions of important (at least to the reader) events or cultural artifacts to the narrative told by a principle participant. What separates the good from the bad, that is, the thought provoking and moving piece of art from the tawdry tell-all? Probably the experience of the reader and the cultural significance associated with the author, but who can say for sure?

Sedaris is described as an essayist and compared to Mark Twain and James Thurber, but his collections of essays are really arranged around themes, as WYAEiF clearly demonstrates in it’s metaphorical and very real engagement with death. I probably should have read the review snippets on the back cover before buying and reading this book, as I was looking for something a little lighter and more “haw haw” than 22 essays on the snuffing of life’s brief candle. My personal preference aside, Sedaris goes to greater lengths than the last book I read by him, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), to delve deep into his own particularly slanted conceptions of life and evoke those stories which remind one of the shortness of life and fear of death. There’s plenty of humor, but in a sinister light which makes one laugh uneasily, such as story about purchasing a human skeleton in Paris for your boyfriend and having him hang it in your bedroom. I personally enjoyed it more than Dress Your Family… even if I wasn’t laughing out loud as frequently.

Many of the stories include vivid and humorous descriptions of oddball’s that Sedaris has met, worked/lived with, and whom society has rejected. “That’s Amore” is a prolonged character sketch of Sedaris’ cantankerous neighbor, who is redeemed from her violent racism and general bitterness through her aging and dependence, a reminder that most of us will one day depend on someone else for something. “This Old House” shows how life circumstances transform a boarding house proprietor from Sedaris’ dream of nostalgic glamor to a mundane caretaker, her integration into society violently extinguishing the glowing ember of intrigue.

Sedaris, on average, must encounter more interesting people every year of his life than the rest of us do in a lifetime, and some truly pitiful characters are recounted in this book. One of the chief reasons I believe that people read memoirs (or engage in most entertainment) is the desperate need to have contact with people more interesting than ourselves. The most interesting people in the book are pariahs, lunatics, and the type of person that you or I tend to avoid; this is no problem for Sedaris, who’s self-described obsessive journaling and note taking record his encounters with and explorations of the characters at the fringe of society. A question that dogs Sedaris and other memoirists is whether they capitalize on the lives of others in their writings. What is the standard by which a random but highly personal or telling encounter might be divulged? Does there have to be meaning or sacrifice to present it to an audience, so that another person’s personal problems seem significant or are transcribed with dignity, or can they be lampooned like the rest of us? I don’t have an answer. I just thought I’d mention it.

The final essay, “The Smoking Section” is probably one of the best I have ever read. It deals with addiction, the anxiety associated with life changes, and cultural barriers while also delivering a great deal of humor, vulnerability and descriptions of modernity and culture in Japan which deflate our sensibilities of Western individualism.

I won’t lie and say that along the way there are not some disposable essays or square pegs jammed into a book which could have lost 50 pages or so, but it was an engaging memoir that jabbed the consciousness of this reader and caused that moment of personal reflection that is so necessary in a genre that needs “to be the center of attention.”

Highly Recommended

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