Not exactly a barn-burner

May 4, 2009 at 3:50 pm 4 comments

At such times, you have to wonder how things got to this point. You meet someone and fall in love; then umpteen years later you’re lying on the floor in a foreign country, promising, hoping, as a matter of principle, that you’ll be dead by sunrise.

A while ago, I did a review on David Sedaris’ third collection of stories, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. You might remember that I thought it was hilarious, and though when I reread the post it seems oddly lackluster, I do remember thinking that David Sedaris was an extraordinarily gifted writer, with a powerful sense of observation and amazing turn of phrase.

So it’s no wonder I was fairly excited for his latest work, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. The title itself refers to a sign in a Tokyo hotel, which lists advice about what to do in the event of fire — ironically, he saw this sign while trying to quit smoking, a chronicle that takes up much of the latter part of the book.

As Sedaris is wont to do, most of the stories start out with a page of some random topic that slowly meanders toward the real point of the story; for example, the story “Keeping Up” starts with the origins of the name of Sedaris’ street, comes around to American tourists, and finally gets around to the real story, which is about how Sedaris can never keep up with his partner, Hugh, when they are walking down the street. It all connects, miraculously, and given the space constraints of the short story, it’s a pretty neat trick. Die-hard minimalists may find this annoying, but really, it’s part of Sedaris’ craft.

Overall, I don’t think this collection is as spectacular as Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. It would be hard to top that collection, especially since I was overwhelmingly struck by Sedaris’ talent and thus hyped When You Are Engulfed in Flames up in my head, setting expectations I don’t think Shakespeare could have met, let alone Sedaris. There was not one moment that could match the “leetle swimming mouse” line of the earlier work…though a few did come close.

That’s not to say I didn’t like this work. I loved the story about Helen the neighbor, “Old Faithful” about boils and monogamous couples, and the one about the Polish man weeping on the plane. Sedaris seems to have concentrated more on poinancy and emotion in this work, rather than laughs, and I think he did it fairly well without being too overly dramatic or soppy. Everything in this collection rings true, in one way or another, even the somewhat surrealist “What I Learned.”

However, this is just a feeling I got, and it could be way off base, but I sensed that in some of these stories, Sedaris was just doing the same thing over and over again, like he had a routine in his stories and was just following it through. Clever opening paragraph — connect it to something else less clever but closer to the reader — body of story, which will be about love, death, or quirky characters — possible remention of earlier clever point — some sort of moving ending.

There’s no denying that it works for him, though, and that overall, it’s a good collection of stories. There’s a lot more on his relationship with his partner that I found interesting, more on his travels, and more of the laconic humor I liked from his other work. Though I wouldn’t go so far as the Observer did and say that Sedaris makes ” Woody Allen appear ham-tongued, Oscar Wilde a drag,” I have to admit that this is definitely a book worth borrowing.


Entry filed under: Biography, Non-fiction. Tags: .

Reading from a Late Winter into Spring Penguin Love Affair

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  May 5, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I’ve never read any Sedaris, but I guess should I ever turn to him, I shall start with something other than this.

    “Book work borrowing.” Ouch. ;P

  • 2. Corey  |  May 5, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    That’s “worth borrowing” of course. Heh.

  • 3. KT  |  May 5, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Ha, I was like OH MY GOD, TYPO! HOW DID I HAVE A TYPO? And then I realized what was going on ;)

    And yeah, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim was great! I think Me Talk Pretty One Day would also be good…half his problem, I think, is that he’s autobiographical, and there are only so many short stories one can write about one’s life before one begins to run out of material.

  • 4. Corey  |  May 5, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Sorry for the panic, buddy! Just me and my spaz fingers at work. :)

    Indeed, I think you are quite right. And the limited time period in which he publishes also probably leads to a shortage of material. It feels like he has new books out a lot of the time!


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