When you read David Sedaris, words like “wry” and “witty” and “highbrow” go through your mind. He is a humorist, but a higher caliber humorist, someone who’s well-read and well-traveled and, well, … smarter than you.
He is the kind of writer whom I aspire to be; who makes you laugh but also makes you think, and while you’re thinking, you say to yourself, or maybe you say out loud, “oh, I see what you did there, Mr. Sedaris. That was clever. Well played.”
When You Are Engulfed in Flames takes its title from the final – and longest – essay in this collection, “The Smoking Section.” The title refers to something the author reads while in Japan – a bad translation of English, or “Engrish” as it is sometimes called. This long essay is more a journal of his experiences of trying to quit smoking, although it becomes more of a retelling of his experiences while briefly living in Japan.
Sedaris has a way of taking something very mundane and day-to-day and transforming it into a larger metaphor, and doing it in a humorous manner. He buys his boyfriend, Hugh, a skeleton as a gift (Hugh collects medical artifacts) and the skeleton ends up reminding him of his own death — taunting him daily. In “Adult Figures Charging Toward a Concrete Toadstool,” he mocks modern art by recalling some of the more gauche pieces of artwork in his parents’ home, including a garden gnome under a toadstool. But, after he’s made you laugh at his family’s bad taste, he admits that when his parents are dead, the toadstool will be the one item he and his siblings will fight over because it so perfectly encapsulates their childhood and the essence of their parents. The way he just flips it – flips the script – it got me. I started thinking of my grandmother who passed away several years ago and how she had labeled things in her house – little tcachkes and such – so that we knew who she wanted to have certain things after she died. I remember a rather tasteless aunt would go around the house, inspecting things to see if she would inherit a certain candelabra, or a Hummel, upon Nanny’s passing.
Each of his essays do this – you’re laughing all the way about some simple detail of life until you realize you’ve been duped into feeling emotional about something. He throws in a ton of red herring(s?) to throw you off the trail, little sidebars and ramblings that sometimes veer totally off course of the story, but they’re welcome additions nonetheless.
This is my first experience with David Sedaris, but it won’t be the last. I’m a fan and an admirer.