He’s outrageous, often self-loathing and possibly offensive, but why can’t I put David Sedaris down?
I stumbled into David Sedaris’s world sometime in early 2011 after seeing the cover of one of his books (which I later found to be When You are Engulfed in Flames) as my cousin’s display picture on a chat service. Something about a suave skeleton smoking a cigarette intrigued me. I must not have been very productive that week, because all I did was read David Sedaris. I even got hold of an audiobook of his that I listened to on my iPod while walking back home from work, but that that activity had to be curbed after I almost got run over.
Though I was forced to acknowledge that public spaces in Chennai aren’t designed with audiobook-listening pedestrians in mind, I had to admit that getting killed mid-Sedaris session is not too shabby a way to die. Who wouldn’t want to go down with a chuckle?
But David Sedaris is a lot more than a chuckle.
He was discovered while doing odd jobs by radio host Ira Glass in a club in Chicago. Soon he became a frequent contributor on radio, before publishing books and writing essays for The New Yorker (one of his more recent ones can be read here).
You could call David Sedaris a humourist, but that would be a rather incomplete description. In his essays, he talks about his childhood obsessive-compulsive tendencies (and not the cute kind), discovering his homosexuality, quitting smoking, his experiences with patients at the psychiatric hospital he briefly worked in, and the death of his mother. He makes all of this incredibly humorous, but somehow not crassly or disrespectfully so. What David Sedaris does so well is somehow convey the extreme fondness he has for his family and friends even whilst going into graphic descriptions of their nuttiness.
King of self-deprecation
“As bad a dresser as I am, anything beats being judged by my character.”
Self-deprecation may not be the healthiest brand of humour. Sometimes it reveals intense insecurities, but if you’re as good at it as Sedaris is, you manage to make your intense insecurities funny.
A classic example of this is in Sedaris’s essay called Naked (from his book of essays, also called Naked). In this, he recounts his visit to a nudist colony, where he is forced to battle his body image, shyness and general awkwardness. Nobody makes self-discovery seem as much fun as David Sedaris does.
What will the neighbours say?
Another aspect of Sedaris’s writing that always strikes me is how generous he is with details. It’s easy to be honest about your own experiences, but Sedaris deals with others’ quirks just as uninhibitedly as he does with his own.
He doesn’t mince his words (perhaps he even dares to exaggerate a little?) when it comes to describing how vehemently his mother opposed to his grandmother Ya-Ya moving in with them.
'What's wrong with a nursing home?' she asked. 'That's what normal people do. Better yet, you could lease her out to a petting zoo…
You can’t help but be a tiny bit grateful that you don’t have a brother who writes about the day you got your first period (The Women’s Open, in Naked), and that you didn’t bump into him at the nudist colony (Naked, in Naked).
Perhaps what lets David Sedaris off the hook is the fact that he is as, if not much more, harsh on himself too. He is not shy about highlighting his own flaws, as is evident in his essay 'The Incomplete Quad' where he goes on a cross-country trip with a female quadriplegic friend. Before you can begin to interpret his writing as callous, the would-I-have-done-the-same syndrome takes over, and all is forgiven.
It may be tempting to believe that the Sedaris and co. are the most dysfunctional bunch of people on Earth, but if you think really hard you begin to see bits and pieces of your own life in his words. Haven’t we all had that one family member who misuses the bath towel? Or that unwarranted awe at a foreign classmate (‘“He has a passport… Quick, let's run before he judges us!” ’). No? Okay.
Disclaimer: The three sentences in italics are from David Sedaris’s essays, quoted only with the intention of giving a sense of his writing to readers.
(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at email@example.com. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )