New Year, New Reading
I devoured David Sedaris’s ‘Theft By Finding: Diaries Volume One’ when it first came out. I love American essayists. They’ve successfully made it an art form unique to America (although we used to write them in the pre-war UK) and Sedaris has a unique way about him.
It seems as if he is viewing the world through the wrong end of a telescope. Instead of giving us the essential details he gave us all the non-essential ones. He observes crazy street people, angry passers-by, supermarket clerks, fans and burnouts with the same innocent eye, engaging them in conversation and asking them offbeat questions.
What has always been missing is any context. He’d mention friends and family without explaining who they were, give us glimpses of his life that didn’t entirely make sense, then go on to describe in detail the clothes of a homeless person. It’s a refreshing approach, and through the cracks we could glean information about his life, his boyfriend, his father, the way he lived.
In the right hands, an essay can become a thing of beauty. It resolves a posed question by fusing facts, opinions and personal experience, andÂ brings out something of the writerâ€™s personality to form a hypothesis, but is above all enjoyable to read. A few of my favourites would include The Decline of the English Murder, Why I Write and Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell, JM Barrie’s powerful Courage, ‘The Death of a Moth’ by Virginia Woolf, any number of essays by David Foster Wallace, Christopher Hitchens, Samuel Johnson, and Joan Didion.
I’m not aware of Mr Sedaris in any other version than what we get in the books, but I understand he performs on NPR and is terrific as a stage performer. His publishers apparently send him out on globe-spanning tours. The furthest away I got on the Forgotten Authors tour was Bath.Â Sedaris’s readers are aware that his descriptions and stories are intentionally exaggerated and manipulated to maximize comic effect. America is very exercised about this, having burned its fingers on a number of high-profile authors who lied in their non-fiction. Sedaris is a humourist and the exaggerated approach works very well. I imagine he’s particularly good live.
But wait – here comes an immense tome, ‘A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries Volume Two’, and something has gone wrong. Sedaris is now mega-famous and travels the world doing signings and shows. I assume so as we get no details at all about why and where he goes, and instead of any perceptive notions about life in other countries we have conversations with chauffeurs and hotel receptionists. We also get visits to his farmhouse in France and his townhouse in a posher part of London, and you can quickly see that the spark has been dimmed. In place of wonder, disillusionment, instead of charm, grumpiness.
What does this tell us about being rich? That the wealthier you are the more short-tempered you become? Or do you simply lose the ability to be amazed and amused? I love the first volume because you sense the author is playing with you. This time around he’s not doing it for effect. By his own admission he’s grown to hate the small talk that made him famous. There are still conversations with strangers that light up the page, just not so many of them.
Melissa Katsoulis in the Times calls him the ‘American Alan Bennett’, but she could not be more wrong. Bennett may overhear conversations, but he’s political charged and alert to changing society. Sedaris is a genuine original, quirky and offbeat in his thought processes. But take him out of his environment and strand him in a series of hotel rooms and his amused banter understandably turns into a series of complaints.