October 2, 2008

When You Were Engulfed in Flames

Print More

When I learned about David Sedaris’s newest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, I cringed in the midst of my excitement. Although I enjoyed his previous work, I wondered if there was any way for him to surpass himself with his latest work. Many of his books are based on his life (an author’s note in his newest release states that the events described are “realish”), and often the more an author writes about his or her own life, the harder it is to keep the subject matter from going stale.
This, however, does not seem to be a problem for Sedaris. Perhaps it is because, like other great satirists, he has mastered the art of hyperbole. Sedaris, however, goes one step beyond and imbues his absurd anecdotes with a poetic yet natural language. His metaphors frequently draw on unglamorous objects — the types of things that are usually seen and forgotten.
This use of the quotidian is essential to the universality of Sedaris’s stories. A prime example comes in the story “All The Beauty You Will Ever Need,” which is set in Normandy on a day when the water in his house has been shut off. Sedaris snares his readers by opening the story in the midst of a conflict — the water has been shut off and he needs to make coffee, which he (obviously) cannot do without running water.
While trivial, the wrenches thrown into everyday life force us to take an unpleasant jog down the path of ingenuity. For Sedaris, this comes in the form of using water from a vase of flowers that his partner, Hugh picked for him. Another conflict arises — that of potentially insulting Hugh’s romantic gesture.
From there, the author reminisces about a couple he met once and the circumstances surrounding that encounter. He ultimately comes full-circle to the original moment of conflict. Sedaris does this gracefully, but not without first giving his subjects a treatment that seems too funny to be honest and too realistic to not have some truth to it.
This talent, I believe, comes as a result of mastering the art of description — of observing carefully the key details of a remote scene and finding a comparison that is relevant to modern life.
Overall, so long as Sedaris’s keen observational skills are kept intact, it will be a long time before his writing becomes stale. When You Are Engulfed in Flames showcases the same sharp wit from the author’s other books.
Though the subject matter is similar, there is a distinct maturity and breadth to this work that shows Sedaris’s continuous development as a writer. His ability to transpose his own experiences into something that can be understood, related to and enjoyed by large numbers of people is a rare, but appreciated, talent.