Last Wednesday at the State Theatre, David Sedaris read a story about driving on the road and encountering a car with a “McCain/Palin ’08” bumper sticker, and how scary it is to drive past the car and realize that the person in the driver’s seat appears normal.
“They walk among us,” he whispered in horror. “Like Canadians.”
Seeing David Sedaris in the flesh felt similar. His writing is wry, sardonic, side-splittingly funny yet dark and weary. He also recruited a teenager to take his place when he quit smoking three years ago. Logically, the owner of such a voice should be a self-absorbed and misanthropic borderline jerk, Dr. House-lite.
Sedaris was nothing like that. Unlike famous people from TV that never quite live up to our enlarged perceptions of them, David Sedaris was slightly bigger than I expected. His appropriately nondescript clothing, mild demeanor and modest height enable him to easily disappear in a crowd. He appeared poised but slightly shy, well-mannered and endlessly adorable, until he began to speak.
Unlike most essayists, Sedaris tests out his new writing by giving large-sale public readings. He has more than enough humor in his material to qualify as stand-up comedy, but his delivery — deadpan, wrestling folders of papers, unanimated except the occasional smile or raised eyebrow and minimal hand gestures — is more similar to an academic poetry reading.
Sedaris is most well known for his essays on his upbringing in a middle class family in North Carolina: a macho father, a matriarchal mother and a clan of eccentric sisters. A mix of Oscar Wilde and Modern Family with a dash of The National Inquirer, his non-fiction short stories chronicled everything from his battles with his lisp and his homosexuality; his severe drug addiction, to his parents’ failed attempt to become art collectors to his mother’s death from lung cancer. Although much of his subject matter is rather dark, he always manages to assert humor into his writing by patiently rummaging and dissecting his life for sparks that others overlook.
However, for his most recent books, several critics have been complaining that Sedaris’ humor is growing mellow, that he is losing his touch as he seems to have exhausted the limited supply of tales from his past. It’s true that his essays have evolved over time; compared to “Naked” and “Barrel Fever,” his writing nowadays is certainly more lucid and concise, and his meditations are more refined. His old brand of humor is disappearing, and although his new works are still nothing short of hysterical, Sedaris has reached a cusp in his career. Something has to change.
Two of the stories he read were works of fiction about animals. “They're not really fables because fables have morals,” he said. “I call them beastieries,” stories of animals doing human-like things. One of such stories was about two white lab rats in a tank, one healthy and the other gravely and comically ill, but happy that he’d be dead soon so he wouldn’t have to be sick anymore. The healthy rat haughtily went on about how illness is caused by “hatefulness and negativity,” while the dying rat sat coughing and bleeding, seeping with pus. Then, without warning, an experimenter’s hand covered with a plastic glove descended from above and injected the white rat with a deadly disease, and the audience’s maniacal laughter, the type reserved for dark humor, turned into a depressed, introspective silence in a flash.
Although these fables are fiction, it’s hard not to wonder if Sedaris simply replaced the names of his neighbors and relatives with “rat” and “weimaraner,” and generated stories that ask us to examine ourselves without the premise of being “human.” They were so wrong and strange yet so familiar, and the stories he read later that evening furthered this invitation for comparison.
He talked about how flight attendants, frustrated with their jobs, entertained themselves by going down the aisles before landing holding a plastic bag, staring at the passengers in their face and saying, “Your trash. Your trash. Your family’s trash.” And of how a supermarket in London labels things “lightly dusted river cobbler” or “crumbled ham dummy,” and hires employees who not only don’t know enough English to explain these almost poetic labels.
Two years ago, there were a series of articles in various publications about factual issues in Sedaris’ memoirs. A New Republic writer went as far as to fact check details from Sedaris’ essays himself — which is a particularly difficult and semi-ridiculous task considering fact-checking a Sedaris memoir would involve tracking down Sedaris’ brother to ask him if he really said his father’s watered-down coffee tasted like “making love in a canoe” because it’s “fucking near water.” The final verdict was that Sedaris’ works are “true-ish,” as Sedaris puts it himself, with some details obviously fictionalized and some dialogues exaggerated for effect. Sedaris’ artfully presenting the truth and downgrading his work due to its slight deviation from the truth is, in my opinion, a matter of personal taste.
In an increasingly narcissistic, confessional culture, Sedaris’ style has been replicated in every corner of the print and digital media. Our world is overflowing with feelings of strangers in newspapers, books and blogs saturated by people promoting their own thoughts. In such a chaotic web of viewpoints, we developed a distaste and immunity for opinion as well as an urge to argue with and shoot down anything that doesn’t agree with our own opinions. The “true-ish”" world filtered through Sedaris’ unusual sensibility is refreshing. It’s one thing to listen to a tired politician’s rhetoric about our flawed education system, but it’s so much more confronting when Sedaris tells you, in his nasal and deadpan tone, that children who have trouble reading aloud now have the luxury of improving their skills by reading to a “trained therapy horse,” who not only listens to the children with no judgment, but also wears sneakers. Funny, because it’s true.
Check out David Sedaris reading on David Letterman: