Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris The word that is coming to mind as a descriptor for [book: Me Talk Pretty One Day] by [author: David Sedaris] is deceptive. But, that word has all kinds of negative connotations, and I'm struggling thesaurusless to find a word that evokes the right combination of simplicity plus cleverness with a twist of ironic self-deprecation hiding a heartfelt (or is it disingenuous? or perhaps just conflicted and complex?) poignancy.

Sedaris (at least here in Me Talk Pretty...) is Budweiser with an absinthe chaser. He's got a light and fruity topnote grounded by eau du latrine on the bottom. He's like a triangle, kazoo and potlid trio playing Chopin.

Barring the location (North Carolina, NYC and France, mostly), drug references and profanity, it could be Garrison Keillor in its folksy tone. There is no pretentiousness in vocabulary or style. It is as easy to read as People magazine, and if one were able to isolate the storytelling from the story, it would likely appeal to the same demographic: i.e., the average reader in queue at the grocery store or--an image that would appeal more to Sedaris' scatology--during the time it takes for an average (not the one in "Big Boy") bowel movement. It helps that these short stories are easily digestible and discrete. There is no nuanced language, no plays on words or long, detailed descriptions to weigh us down.

I prefer to know as little as possible about the authors I read before I read them. It's a holdover from my New School-style training. Thus, I know almost nothing about David Sedaris, but some kind of tipping point occurred recently, where he spilled over from Gen-X (? Y ?) hipster consciousness into the mainstream, I think. He became the author to read. In my usual 'day-late, dollar-short' way, I'm just getting around to him now, and Me Talk Pretty One Day happened to be the first book of his I picked up. It won't be the last, but not for the most-often cited reason. The little I do know about him identifies his side-splitting funniness as the key characteristic of his success and popularity, but that is not what I most enjoyed.

I suspect that the lines and images that pack the funny punch for most are precisely those that I found strained and a little flat. Instead, what really mattered to me were the characters. In deft, easy and broad brush strokes, Sedaris paints exceptionally rich characters, raises some provocative questions and reaches depths of insight and compassion in his poignant observations that linger well after these story morsels are over.

Of course, he--Sedaris--is a key character in each of his stories, so my anti-authorial-heresy critic's eye is perhaps unnecessarily, and unfortunately, blinkered. In stories such as Remembering My Childhood On The Continent of Africa and The Late Show, there is a wonderful transparency between Sedaris-the-author and Sedaris-the-first-person-narrator. And there is another person there, too: it is Sedaris' play-by-play announcer, the voice he hears in his head. It is the internal voice we all have: our biggest critic and most self-delusional fan. In writing this announcer's voice right into the story, Sedaris' open and honest charm shines through. When all of them, the author, the narrator and the announcer, interact with other characters (family, teachers, coworkers, lovers), we experience the full richness of a complex, all-too-human (and for some of us, all-too-familiar!) personality. Sometimes baffled, sometimes bemused, we are all just trying to make sense of the world and our part in it.

This review is now bloated in precisely the opposite of Sedaris' style, so let me be more specific by pulling out an exemplar scene from one of my favourite stories in this collection: Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities.

Out with his mom at the mall one day, Sedaris spies Mister Mancini, his midget guitar teacher, ordering a hamburger and being mocked by other kids. In a well-rendered and chosen paragraph of details, which offer layers of meaning beyond the obvious, Mancini is shown to Sedaris and to the reader to be a sad, lonely man: "He sometimes mentioned having lunch with a salesgirl from Jolly's Jewelers, "a real looker," but on this day he was alone. Mister Mancini had to stand on his tiptoes to ask for his hamburger, and even then his head failed to reach the counter." and "Tray in hand, Mister Mancini took a seat and pretended not to notice [the teasing]." The event leads Sedaris to feel a powerful kinship with Mancini: "watching him dip his hamburger into a sad puddle of mayonnaise, I broadened my view and came to see him as a wee outsider, a misfit whose take-it-or-leave-it attitude had left him all alone.... We were each a man trapped inside a boy's body."

Despite his newfound compassion, which is fundamentally egocentric, there is also simultaneously an undercurrent of petty nastiness, fully acknowledged by Sedaris: "Beneath my moral outrage was a strong sense of possessiveness, a fury that other people were sinking their hooks into my own personal midget."

In Sedaris' hallmark style, he then takes a turn towards the utterly ridiculous, as--egged on by his play-by-play announcer--he decides to reveal his true musical aspirations to Mancini by regaling him, at the next music lesson, with Sara Lee and Oscar Mayer commercial-jingles-as-showtunes. This is meant to be a pivotal moment of bonding in artistic brotherhood and shared misfittery. "If things worked out the way I hoped, I'd someday mention in interviews that my accompanist was both my best friend and a midget." Instead, it goes horribly and wonderfully awry.

There are a dozen more examples like this one. These are the scenes that I refer to when I say there is a deceptive depth and complexity here, a real, albeit conflicted, humanity of genuine warmth and no less genuine meanness. Sedaris' ability to render this complexity, with humour, is the power behind these stories, this book and Sedaris' talent itself.