Impressions of David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed In Flames

(Spoiler Alert: Revelations are made, and things get mushy)

I spent some of today working on my reviews for Comic Bastards, and a lot of it sitting around my new apartment, working as a chair for my roommate’s cat, Bitty while thinking about all the thesis work I haven’t yet done and all the beer that I could be drinking. Having not written one of these in a while, I struggled to muster the energy to find something interesting to say about Sedaris’ work other than that he’s hilarious and makes wonderful stuff from the mundane, which is what 90% of the blurbs on the back of his book state.

David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Sedaris first came to my attention thanks to Facebook recommended pages some years back. An acquaintance had liked his page, and thanks to the magic of algorithms, Facebook figured I’d like him too. However, it wasn’t until I gave in to the ‘This American Life’ machine last year that I first heard Sedaris share one of his essays, one about the everyday issues he runs into due to his lack of fluency in French. Like most of those who hear Sedaris, I found him charming, relatable and more articulate than I could ever hope to be. I got pissed off while reading one of his essays where he describes a very specific color that I had no familiarity with, and just feeling like a complete dumbass, contemptuous of his vocabulary. Reading his essays in When You Are Engulfed In Flames, I was shaken by the ease with which he delivered stories of his family, youth and his often dull adult life.

Of the essays in this collection, which I picked up at an Austin Half Priced Books while hanging with my friend Dana, ‘Amore’ was the first that I knew would stick with me for a long time. An essay chronicling Sedaris’ dysfunctional relationship with a woman who lived in his New York apartment complex, ‘Amore’ reminded me of all the strange people that have inhabited my life for brief spats at a time, people like the Hispanic ex-con that lived in the 2nd ward apartment complex I resided in for a summer in Houston who pointed out my error in moving into such a crap place, but promised that no harm would come of me, harm that I wasn’t aware was possible until he mentioned it. Sedaris is a pro of blowing up these types of brief encounters into grand narratives that become much more than just the he said, she said anecdotes that a lot of personal essays end up being.

However, it was Sedaris’ closing essay ‘The Smoking Section’ that made me recognize him as a contemporary great that I’ll need to continue reading. While it was just as stellar as the other essays in this book, what most impressed me about it is that I did not come away from it throwing a fit the way I often do when reading a work clearly written by a person whose problem are of the first world variety. In ‘The Smoking Section’ Sedaris employs his trademark wit and self-deprecating tone to show just how absurd his plans of quitting smoking are (a decision that involves a move to Tokyo for the summer). Never asking for sympathy or pity, Sedaris instead uses much of his to explore the quirks of Japanese culture as well as the sea change that started in the 80’s that saw the demonization of tobacco smoking in America and Western Europe.

After finishing the collection while waiting for the HUT shuttle to bring me back to Corvallis for my second year of grad school, I wondered whether Sedaris’ work would be talked about a hundred years from now as capital-L literature. Deprived of sleep at the time, I came up with zero answers. However if Sedaris’ work is any indication he probably couldn’t give a damn as every sentence reads like something he writes just to maintain some semblance of coherence in his mind. Sedaris has provided me with the assurance that I don’t need to wait for something dramatic to happen for me to write about my own life. If he can write about his one-way relationship with a spider, I should be able to write about the one I had with a tiger heron for a summer.

Maybe. We’ll see.


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