April 6, 2007

Wordsmith Sedaris Speaks

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David Sedaris wishes the truth were prettier. Really, he does. He wishes that “the truth were always pretty, without blood bubbles or little hairs in it.” Well, that’s what he said Sunday night when the Ithaca State Theatre held its fifth sold out show of the season, hosting “An Evening With David Sedaris.”
The New York Times-bestselling author is currently on a tour of 46 cities. Several of his books include Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, which are collections of autobiographical stories. He is also a frequent contributor on the radio show This American Life and his work has been featured in The New York Times and Esquire.
Sedaris approached the podium modestly with papers spilling from an accordion folder. Despite his travels across the world and time spent living abroad, he still speaks with a southern accent and has a trace of a childhood lisp. Not unlike truth’s often unappealing form, Sedaris’s life, as told through his stories, lacks the polished finish and flawless façade that marks many autobiographical works. For Sedaris, such matters seem to be of little importance. His talent lies in embracing life’s often unattractive, repulsive and sometimes tacky idiosyncrasies (One of his adult brothers, for example, insists on being called “The Rooster”) and compulsions he has encountered and possessed. The author takes his moments of desperation and crafts them into a clumsily eloquent blend of humility and hilarity.
Sedaris, however, does not seem to mind sharing his bumps and warts with his readers. His skill lies in his ability to capture the gritty little details that make us cringe and laugh simultaneously. This has played a large part in his success as a writer and humorist. The unabashed sense of authenticity that resonates in his writing was even more apparent when he read his stories. At one point, he paused in the middle of reading to examine the vagueness inherent in a particular sentence.
In his stories, Sedaris captures most of his subjects with a combination of sentimentality and venomous sarcasm that is best likened to being stung by a scorpion with a ribbon tied around its neck. Take for example, the first story Sedaris read on Sunday evening entitled “The Whole Truth.” Sedaris began by apologizing for a small number of rather insignificant accuracies in his stories.
He spoke about the importance of writing with integrity and of relentlessly checking and rechecking the smallest details in a story for accuracy. He praised the press, for their ability to distinguish between worthwhile falsehoods, such as those in the memoirs of a former alcoholic and trite fibs, like those regarding weapons of mass destruction told by the government. Not surprisingly, this statement was well received by the audience.
Sedaris’ writing briefly lulls its readers into a sense of contentment and familiarity before snowballing into bizarre and often hilarious anecdotes from the author’s life. Recurring topics in his autobiographical anecdotes range from his life in North Carolina, struggles with language (learning French and receiving speech therapy for a childhood lisp, for example), his life in France, his experiences in New York and his family.
In the two hours Sedaris spent onstage, he merely proved a point his readers already know. He is a master of words, manipulating them ever-so-slightly to create a fresh pun or weave threads of dark humor and satire into his stories, whether purely fictional or based on his life experiences. For one night only, Sedaris proved that the truth has no obligation to be pretty and that sometimes, things are better off that way.