Talking pretty with David Sedaris
Many of us still remember when we first heard the dry, droll voice of David Sedaris on public radio. He was the only person in the early 1990s more amusing than George Bush. Sedaris talked about his hilarious adventures doing such seemingly innocent tasks as cleaning New York apartments or working as a Christmas elf at Macy's. Gradually, collections of his essays appeared: Barrel Fever, Naked, Holidays on Ice. With these books, Sedaris fans could keep him nearby rather than waiting for a broadcast on All Things Considered. Fans will rejoice again, because Sedaris is back with a new laugh-out-loud collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day. The book's title, after one of the essays, records Sedaris's first official stroke of genius choosing to present his own garbled English translations of the garbled French uttered by students in an introductory French class. Sedaris's version is the first time this trick has worked since Mark Twain pulled it off with one hand tied behind his back.
"Sometime me cry alone at night," Sedaris laments about his sadistic French teacher. A fellow sufferer replies, "That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People stop hate you soon."
"The school read that story, and I got kicked out," Sedaris said in a recent interview. "And the only thing that saved me was that every word of it was true."
Being expelled from French class for accurately portraying his teacher is all in a day's work for David Sedaris. About half of Me Talk Pretty One Day deals with family and childhood, and half with his recent move to France and its ramifications in his life, ranging from having to defend the U.S. at cocktail parties to discovering a preference for movies over tourist traps. "I didn't care where Hemingway drank or Alice B. Toklas had her mustache trimmed," he writes. This essay, like most of Sedaris's others, grows out of everyday circumstances riding the subway, working as a furniture mover, seeing a photo of Jodie Foster carrying dog excrement in a plastic bag on the beach. Sedaris likes to make his essays out of the unremarkable strands of his own life.
Not one to propound manifestos, Sedaris is nonetheless articulate about his reasons for this attitude. "It seems like literature, or at least recent American literature," he says in his signature dry voice, "teaches you that unless you grew up living in the back of a car, or unless your folks were in prison, you really don't have a story to tell. It's funny how a lot of rich people and middle-class people think, 'Gosh, if I were poor, I'd have such a good book.' They don't see any value in their own lives," Sedaris notes. "When actually it all depends on how you write about it. Instead of being jealous of these people who had incredibly dramatic lives, who grew up in foster homes and were kept chained in the basement, the notion that if you had bunk beds that just didn't cut it—it took me awhile to realize, 'Well, I took guitar lessons from a midget.' "
Sedaris taught briefly at the Art Institute in Chicago, where he saw these attitudes every day. "To hear my students talk, they had been raised by wolves. Then graduation day would come and their parents would drive up in BMWs, and these kids were dying of embarrassment."
Sedaris doesn't describe himself as an essayist, a humorist, or even a writer. "When I fly back and forth into the country, and I'm asked for my occupation, I just say typist. I would have no problem saying I'm an accountant or a dental assistant, because that's just a job and it's on your W2 form. I mean, it seems like the world can call you something, but don't call yourself that. You know, it's like when you meet somebody and you ask, 'What do you do?' and they say, 'I'm an artist.' I just cringe."
In retrospect, Sedaris also cringes at the memory of his early years as a performance artist in, of all places, North Carolina. His descriptions of the smug posturings of these self-proclaimed artistes is one of Sedaris's most perceptive and heartfelt works not only hilarious and smart, but also candid (and darkly humorous) about his addiction to crystal methamphetamines.
While Sedaris's essays give the sense of ordinary reality, they are unquestionably reflected through the distorting mirror of his outlook. "I've been trying, especially with this book, to pull back a little bit from exaggerating, which of course is my natural inclination. But I found with this last book that what people thought I was making up were the things that were true. I did hitchhike across the country with a quadriplegic."
The stories take place at various times in Sedaris's life, so no matter how solid the bones that are being excavated, some reconstruction is required. "Of course, I can't remember every word of what someone said to me 20 years ago. So that's where I tend to exaggerate the most, in the dialogue, because I want to make it as entertaining as I can."
He mentions a story in Me Talk Pretty One Day in which an American man on the Paris Metro thinks Sedaris is a French pickpocket. Assuming that Sedaris can't speak English, the man loudly catalogues his suspicions to his wife. "Reading it aloud," Sedaris adds, "I could feel the anticlimax. But I didn't want to make up an ending." Actually, the story doesn't feel anticlimactic. It's a vignette, but an astutely observed and funny one, sort of Chekhov meets Thurber.
In Sedaris's world, nothing turns out as expected. Just as she gets off the subway, his sister turns to him and calls out, "Good luck beating that rape charge." He is left to face the hostile stares of strangers and to write up the account for those of us who enjoy seeing the world through the eyes of David Sedaris.
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).