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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Domestic violence.(When You Are Engulfed in Flames)(Book review).

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David Sedaris is clearly a man who spends a lot of time at home, alone. "It's funny how objects convey a certain message," he notes in "Memento Mori", one of the essays in his sixth collection. "The washer and dryer...remind me that I'm doing fairly well. 'No more laundromat for you,' they hum. My stove, a downer, tells me that I can't cook, and before I can defend myself my scale jumps in, shouting from the bathroom, 'Well, he must be doing something. My numbers are off the charts.' The skeleton has a much more limited vocabulary and says only one thing: 'You are going to die.'"

The skeleton, which belongs to Sedaris's boyfriend Hugh and hangs in the couple's bedroom, appears to have had a considerable influence on When You Are Engulfed in Flames. In one essay, "The Monster Mash", Sedaris spends a gruesome week visiting the autopsy suite at a medical examiner's office, all the while writing himself a long list of reminders: "Never fall asleep in a Dumpster", "Never underestimate a bee" and, more pointedly, "Never get old". This last helpless fate befalls a few characters: one neighbour, the odious Helen, ends a lifetime of aggressive rudeness muted by a debilitating series of strokes; another, an elderly French child molester whom Sedaris is too embarrassed not to be polite to, fades quietly away from cancer. The prospect of a similar fate prompts Sedaris to quit smoking; that task is the subject of the collection's final, 80-page essay.

The skeleton looms over a mixed bag of stories, all of them "realish", according to an author's note. The material that made Sedaris famous in the first place-savagely funny tales about his upbringing-still gets a mention: considering the similarities between his childhood Halloween costume of choice, a hobo, and his adult wardrobe, he mentions offhand that his sister Amy usually trick-or-treated as a "confused prostitute". But most of the stories are about his adult life with Hugh, about whom he is (probably wisely) much kinder.



Sedaris lives in France and travels to Tokyo to give up smoking, so most of the stories take place outside the US. Much of his humour comes from pointing out the absurdity of normal situations, which means that writing about life abroad has its pros and cons: his take on the world around him is less nuanced, but then again he has on tap one of the richest natural sources of comedy: translation. A Frenchman tries to explain that he has a metal plate in his head but "his pointing back and forth between his temple and the glove compartment only confused me. 'You invented glove compartments? Your glove compartment has ideas of its own? I'm sorry...I don't...'" In Japan, even household objects have to be translated: a friend explains that the rice maker is signalling that it is ready for use, but the bathtub is "just being an asshole and waking us up for no reason".

Because Sedaris's books are classified as autobiography, he has come in for criticism over his "realish" source material. One of the essays, "Of Mice and Men", offers an apt (in fact, suspiciously apt) anecdote on the subject. In an attempt to make small talk, Sedaris tells a cab driver a story from a newspaper: a snippet about a Vermont man who fumigates his house to get rid of mice, then gleefully sets the now extra-flammable escapees on fire-only to see one run straight back into the house and burn it to the ground. It's a great story, but the taxi driver is not impressed by this tale of just deserts, and calls him a liar. Only when an outraged Sedaris gets home and rereads the clipping does he realise that the cabbie was right: the headline, "Mouse gets revenge: sets home ablaze", fits with Sedaris's version, but the report features only one mouse, no fumigation and a shack in New Mexico. Still, he points out that "despite my embroidery, the most important facts hold true". More to the point, his version is a much better read than the newspaper original.


As with the rest of the book, a sense of mortality lurks in the background. Even the slick oneliners hint at it: "a bow tie announces to the world you can no longer get an erection"; "turn down a drink in the US and people get the message...in Europe, you're not an alcoholic unless you're living half-naked in the street, drinking antifreeze from a cast-off shoe". Still, Sedaris's wry, often visceral humour is so incessant, there is no time for the essays to descend into gloom, and his habit of finishing on a poignant note stops them from becoming harsh. In the end, even the skeleton softens up, hesitantly telling him that "you are going to be dead...some day".


Named Works: When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Nonfiction work) Book reviews

Source Citation
McDonald, Alyssa. "Domestic violence." New Statesman [1996] 28 July 2008: 49. Academic OneFile. Web. 17 Dec. 2009. .


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