Dusty Myers's Reviews > When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
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Jul 11, 08

Read in July, 2008

Here's my take on Sedaris, or maybe my take on Sedaris before I listened to this book: Naked is easily his best work because it's his most thorough, his most unencumbered by his own fame. If we were to compare his oeuvre to MTV's The Real World, Naked is the original New York season (despite not being Sedaris's first book). In New York, the cast members were people already living in the city (with the Alabama exception) and trying to make a living; the whole "be on TV" part of it was something they dealt with in the name of free housing. Now, of course, teens run at the chance to go live in some other city just to "have their lives taped," just for the fame it might bring, and what they actually do on the show is dull as a result. Naked is the masterpiece because the essays therein are longer and more satisfying; the whole thing is memoir in its finest form of sifting through the past to let someone understand how life (or maybe just a life) gets lived.

Then he got wildly famous and was able to publish any old essay in any old magazine. This, I recognize, is a factor of his talent both as a writer and a humorist, not a factor of his name. Still, even as "far back" as Me Talk Pretty One Day, I left much of the essays with a sense of incompletion. "Picka Pocketoni"? Why wasn't this narrator doing anything? It wasn't enough just to stand there and report, I felt.

A lot of WYAEiF is about how wealthy and glamorous Sedaris's life is, and how wealthy he was growing up, which is something I'd never really sensed before. He talks about the cork-lined dining room at his parents' house with the (at the time) contemporary Danish modern furniture. He talks about the $20K he spent to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for three months. He mentions an $8K first-class ticket he bought. He mentions a lot of airplane rides; I think at least three of the essays have their roots in something that happened to D.S. while flying across the Atlantic. This smacks to me of a writer who's run out of things to write about; and yet there are essays about old neighbors ("That's Amore", one of the collection's best), so it seems Sedaris still has enough memories to last a few more books.

I heard that in some interview somewhere, Sedaris confessed that he was getting to the point in his life where he'd act in a scene explicitly for the purposes of creating something to write about. Maybe Sedaris has a history of this (I can't imagine he just wanted to up and go to a nudist colony on his own; clearly, he saw great material in the exercise) but something about the heft of those earlier essays ("Santaland Diaries", too) makes them seem more honest. In the interview, Sedaris was talking specifically about the decision to cough so hard on a plane that his throat lozenge would be expelled from his mouth. He thought, Let's see what happens, and coughed. This action begins one of the essays in this book, and it's never revealed as constructed.

I'm not aligning myself with that camp of Memoir Exposers For The Truth. My complaint isn't that Sedaris makes things up. It's that at one time, behind the essays, was this guy David Sedaris, or as close to the guy as we could get, and now it seems that behind all these essays lies "The Writer David Sedaris". I'm not making myself clear.

(Which, incidentally, is one thing I can't fault Sedaris for. His timing in writing is impeccable and his descriptions apt and lovely in places. Oh and funny. The book in just incredibly, unendingly funny. In short: get the audiobook.)
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message 1: by Kim (new)

Kim Reynauld I agree whole-heartedly with the above...Naked is by far his best book followed by Barrel Fever which if I'm not mistaken contains the glorious quote: 'If you're looking for sympathy it's between shit and syphillis'.


Pete Rathburn It's a strange implication to make that none of Sedaris' experiences since reaching fame as a writer should be mined for future writing material. True, some of these essays involve plane rides or limo rides, but his fame is not the centerpiece of the essays.


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