I've just finished Barrel Fever, which is, I think, the fourth David Sedaris book I've read. And every time I read a David Sedaris book, I remember, "Oh wait, I don't really like these books". There is a pitiless, dehumanizing quality to his observations that is exactly the opposite of what I think the best writing embodies. But I keep reading them. And I think that's because I can kind of see how powerful this style could be if the water of scorn parted occasionally and sometimes managed to let some kind of love pass through.
And that does happen, sometimes, like in this book, in the story "After Malison", where the narrator -- an aspiring writer who's basically stalking a hip metafictionista -- finds herself at a table in a bar with a crippled man:
"That old guy is probably still sitting in the bar, using his nap-kin to mop up the vomit and trying to convince the waitress that the world is good at heart. He’d come over to my table and asked to join me, and I looked up from my writing and said, “Go ahead, sit down,” not because I wanted company, but be-cause he obviously needed to sit someplace and all the other chairs were taken. This man walked with two canes and his legs were twisted. Each foot pointed off in a different direction as though they had been attached sideways. He sat down and asked the waitress to bring us her finest bottle of champagne. The waitress asked, “What are you celebrating?” and the man just spread out his arms and looked back and forth across the room. I said, “You’re celebrating this bar?” and he said, “No, I’m celebrating life!” I should have gotten up and left; but instead I saw this man as someone I can use for a piece I’m working on. He’s someone whom Malison would describe as a self-hypnotic, one of those people who convinces himself that his life is meaningful only because the truth would destroy him. It’s as if someone has hypnotized him by waving a turd back and forth in front of his face and saying, “You’re getting sleepy . . . sleepy.”
"When the champagne arrived at the table, the crippled man grinned from ear to ear. And I mean that literally. He had the widest mouth I have ever seen on a human. I think he could have fit a saucer in there with no problem. He had this wide mouth and sandy blond hair growing in tufts along the sides of his head. The top of his head was bald and covered with spots and freckles. He made a big production of popping the cork off the champagne bottle, and the people at the other tables all looked our way and cheered him on. Everyone acted as if this were important and memorable. The man poured two glasses and then noticed my journal and said, “So, I see you’re a writer.” This would be like me noticing his two canes leaning against the table and saying, “So, I see you’re a cripple,” but I bit my tongue and just said, “Yes, I’m a writer.” The man said he’d never written much besides letters but that reading was his greatest pleasure. Then he rattled off a list of the writers he admired — fussy, middle-of-the-road contemporaries — and I said, “Aren’t all those people dead?” and he grabbed at his heart and said, “I hope not!” It went right over his head. He asked who I like reading, and when I answered, “Malison,” he winced. You’d think I’d spat in his drink. It pissed me off. I don’t need this man’s approval to read anything. I’m not here to live up to his expectations. I’d rather die than live up to his expectations. His attitude was getting on my nerves, and I should have just packed up my shit and left. I asked if he’d actually read any of Malison’s work, and he said as a matter of fact, yes, he had. He said he’d recently found himself on a Greyhound bus to St. Louis and had discovered too late that the attaché case containing all his books had been stored below along with his luggage. He said he’d spent eight hours reading a copy of Rotunda Surf he’d found abandoned on the seat beside him. He used that word, abandoned, to suggest that someone had deliberately walked away from a hardcover Malison.
"This man proceeded to question what he called Malison’s “defensiveness” and said he doubted the wisdom of Rotunda Surf’s prologue. It is supremely ironic that this man, this joker with the canes and the wide mouth, would question Malison. Who does he think he is? That prologue is one of my favorite parts of the whole book. In it Malison writes: “If you, reader, can yank your head out of your own asshole long enough to finish the first chapter, don’t make the mistake of congratulating yourself. You possess nothing but fleeting, momentary courage. The shit on your face is still wet. It is your mask.” It is so true, but I could see that this crippled guy couldn’t digest it at all because Malison was directing the prologue at people just like him — people who wear masks."
That was the high point of the whole book for me, the place where David Sedaris' voice (and all his stories and essays are kind of written in the same voice) is swamped and temporarily capsized by the world at large -- by other ways of looking at things -- before promptly reasserting itself and continuing to bob along, upright. I can also be sardonic and pitiless. And I don't view it as a particular fault within myself, since I see it as being counterbalanced and complemented by numerous other virtues. But I don't accord that same understanding to David Sedaris' writing voice.
I don't know why I continue to read his works. I was going to say that it's because I am interested in that voice, and am interested in trying to use it to say more powerful and more interesting things than he manages to. But that might not be the case. Maybe it is just that I am entertained by it at the same time as it repels me, and that while I am in the process of reading, the enjoyment overpowers the repulsion, but that once I close the book, the former fades more rapidly than the latter.
I have this kind of love/hate relationship with alot of writers, like Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where I can't say exactly what I am reading them for, or even whether I like them, but I somehow continue to read their books even thought it is now long past the point where I am still hoping to discover the book that I will love unconditionally.
Have you ever listened to any of his audiobooks? I’ve loved him on This American Life and have listened to most of his books on audio. I’ve read a few short pieces of his on the page and they didn’t grab me. I assumed at the time they just weren’t the best examples of his writing, but later wondered if his ability to vocally deliver just the right amount of wink managed to cut the snark into something I could enjoy. If I’m correct, then whatever way he fails me as an author is made up for by his mastery of this tangential media.
And I’d heard that if I liked Sedaris I would like Augusten Burroughs and on the page I see a lot of similarities, but I didn’t like the essay collection I’d read (and even tried an audio version from the library). The same cynicism, playful judgment, and selfaware selfishness wasn’t as cute as it was in Sedaris, and it wore me down. But I do wonder if I would love David Sedaris reading Burroughs’ books to me.
Hey Alex, good to see you here. No, I’ve never heard him in audio. I kind of have a feeling that I might like it. I hear he kind of got big via radio, etc, and maybe alot of his appeal is rooted in that.
I read Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors a while back, and I can kind of see the similarities to Sedaris: they’re both gay, cynical, and funny. But I found Running With Scissors to be utterly horrifying. The thought of living in that kind of family situation does not seem funny, it seems totally horrible. I mean, I guess plenty of people found it humorous, so I should not judge, but it did not strike me right.
It was Magical Thinking, I think. IIRC in it he referenced stories from Running with Scissors and from what I gather MT was much lighter fair than RwS.
It’s been a while but I think this episode, which includes the full Santaland Diaries, is the thing that made me fall in love with Sedaris.
Sweet. I will give it a listen at some point.