Julia Nagel / Assistant Photo Editor

October 4, 2021

Who Even is David Sedaris?

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David Sedaris opened his reading at the State Theatre on Sept. 25 by telling us that, unlike his friend Ann Patchett, he was perfectly willing to be the reason people crowd into a theater and risk COVID-19. “I bought all these outfits,” he explained, stepping out from behind his podium and doing a slow twirl. Back at his microphone, he informed us that he’d chosen this pair of his signature culottes because the red patterned fabric looked like it was taken from the drapes at a cheap motel.

I’ll admit the pattern looked like it would fit right in at a Best Western, but I find it hard to believe his pants were cheap. In a 2016 essay entitled “Shopping in Tokyo,” Sedaris described purchasing a pair of “artfully hand-stitched Clown pants” that cost “as much as a MacBook Air.” Out of context this kind of purchase seems bizarre and frivolous, and perhaps it is, but in Sedaris’ case it can also be seen as a sound investment in his personal brand. 

David Sedaris revels in being the kind of person who spends thousands of dollars on ostentatious clothing or taxidermy owls or, in one essay, an “eighteenth-century scientific model of the human throat.” In writing, he presents himself as over-the-top to the point that it’s difficult to believe he’s not making it up or exaggerating. When he shows off his culottes, it’s like he’s proving himself to his audience: “Yes,” he seems to say, “I’m really like this in person.”

After reading his 2018 collection Calypso, I began to wonder if Sedaris’ writing leaned too far into this wealthy and eccentric persona to be relatable in the way his earlier collections are. Sedaris writes about his day-to-day life, but now that this day-to-day life consists of purchasing homes rather than the minimum wage employment of the “Santaland Diaries” days, his writing has become less observational and more performative. The essays Sedaris read on Saturday displayed moments of this issue. When he talked about deciding COVID-19 was no longer an issue the moment he got the vaccine, it was difficult not to look around at his fully masked audience and think “easy for you to say.”

Still, the reading reminded me of the kinds of themes and tensions that Sedaris navigates so beautifully in his best writing. The two full essays he read told the story of the kind person his father became in his final days of life at an old folks home, and his father’s history of sexually abusive behavior towards his children. There’s something impossible to articulate about caring for and about family members who have done inexcusably horrible things. Instead of trying to explain it all, Sedaris finds the space to laugh at the absurd, contradictory, and sad in his life. This humor finds room for the audience to laugh too — at Sedaris and at ourselves. Perhaps we don’t all wear culottes, but on some level we all know what it’s like to have a complicated relationship with family, and it’s a relief to be able to laugh about it.

After the reading, Sedaris did a short Q&A. I noticed for the first time that the audience was mostly older adults after he informed us that he no longer allows college students to pick him up from the airport because their trunks are always full. In the back of the signing line, my friend and I exchanged jokes about how angry he’d sounded — scrunching up faces and saying things like “kids these days” and “the youths.

Then, when we finally got to the front of the line, he looked at my other twenty-year-old friend and said “Who are you? Are you fourteen?” On the walk back to our car we laughed and laughed about our encounter, repeating the question “who are you?” back and forth ad nauseum. David Sedaris could entertain us, but he doesn’t know us. By the time we reached the car, the topic shifted, and I found myself trying to articulate what it was like when my grandfather died after years of intentional distance from his family. Buckling my seatbelt, I glanced back at the trunk of our car. Ok, so he’s not wrong about that.

Tilda Wilson is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].