As time goes by, the thinness of David Sedaris books becomes more palpable. Like the modern memoir movement he helped to launch, he’s become more prolific and has less and less to say. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, his latest book, is his thinnest yet. Padded with everything from his commencement speech at Princeton to an Esquire article that’s at least five years old, the book has enjoyable moments, but mostly feels hollow.
I think the key to why Sedaris’ early work was not just enjoyable, but relatable, was that he worked so assiduously to disguise the fact that he was, for all intents and purposes, a capital-W Writer. In his first book, Barrel Fever, this was obviously pretty easy to do, but by Me Talk Pretty One Day, the “I’m just like you” vibe had become quite carefully maintained. You’ll notice in Me Talk Pretty that Sedaris never describes himself as having money, as having any kind of career in the present day, as possessing any kind of fame. To his credit, this works pretty well. The constant self-deprecation allows you to forget that the guy has three homes (now four), is broadcast on the radio and published in national magazines, tours the country speaking to packed audiences. He’s just an average guy who can’t learn French, had trouble coming out, has a crazy family.
Sedaris bravely decided to break that wall with the story “Repeat After Me,” which appears in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. The story is about how his fame (and the minor liberties he’s taken with the facts) has affected his family, framed in the context of Me Talk Pretty being turned into a movie. It’s a painful story, difficult to read, and while it’s couched in the excellent little observations that have made Sedaris famous, it marks a real turning point in his work. Everything he’s written since is decidedly crowned by the label of “By David Sedaris, Famous Person.” And while I’m sure he enjoys the attention and piles of money, I don’t envy Sedaris in this respect. He’s become his writing’s own worst enemy.
To his credit, When You Are Engulfed in Flames drops most of the remnants of his “David Sedaris, Average Guy” act. He unabashedly writes that his decision to quit smoking (the story of which comprises the book’s lengthy coda) was based, in part, on an inability to secure smoking rooms in the swanky hotels to which he travels on his tours. He discusses buying an expensive painting that he no longer particularly likes. He is unafraid to admit that his quit-smoking trip to Japan cost $30,000.
Some of these gambits pay off; two of the book’s funniest stories involve thwarted social interactions on airplanes, clearly the final frontier when it comes to the imperturbability of American manners. The author makes it clear that he’s on these planes for his lecture circuit, but the behavior that follows is pure Sedaris: part misanthrope, part fussbudget, part social anthropologist, he seems to have a magical gift for attracting bizarre people and subsequently pushing them to their limits.
Still, it would be hard to say that When You Are Engulfed in Flames tops any of Sedaris’ earlier books. There’s a lot of navelgazing and half-baked attempts at mapping narratives onto events that don’t seem to want them. One story is about how Sedaris named every spider in his country house, then took one away to Paris and got annoyed with having to feed her. It’s not exactly riveting. Like every other person on this earth, Sedaris only has so many good stories, and it seems he’s used most of them at this point. I wonder if he’d consider what could be, if mismanaged, creative and financial suicide: a return to fiction. He executed fiction quite well in the short-story portion of Barrel Fever, but hasn’t published any since. Backing away from the real world may not be easy for him to do, nor particularly pleasing to the fans who want to hear every detail of a life strangely lived, but the results could be incredibly interesting. For writers who don’t have half as many good true stories as Sedaris has shared in the past decade, it’s been the best approximation we can come up with. Maybe it’s finally time for him to become a member of the club.