Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases

sedaris-me-talk-prettyMe Talk Pretty One Day
by David Sedaris

I had come across Sedaris a few times in the New Yorker and found him invariably hilarious, so I’d been meaning to read this, his most famous book, for ages. Finally, on a day out in Oxford earlier this year with my friend H, we inevitably found ourselves in my favourite branch of Blackwells and I wandered around happily picking up and putting down books indecisively until I spotted this volume and knew it was the one.

This both is and isn’t an autobiography. It’s a collection of essays, previously published in various places including the New Yorker and Esquire, but they are all stories from Sedaris’s life and they are arranged in chronological order, so a sort of memoir emerges, a highly selective one.

“That’s one of Alisha’s most well-worn adjectives, sweet, and she uses it to describe just about everyone. Were you to kick her in the stomach, the most you could expect would be a demotion to ‘semi sweet’. I’ve never known someone so willing to withhold judgment and overlook what often strike me as major personality defects. Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character.”

The first half of the book deals with Sedaris’s childhood in North Carolina, his failed attempts to be an academic, his move to New York and the varied jobs he took to survive there, including as a house mover and as PA to an eccentric publisher. I say “deals with” but each essay tells one memory, or set of linked memories, so this is by no means the full story of Sedaris’s life. However, his open engaging style makes it feel a lot like a memoir, so it can be a bit disconcerting to realise that information learned in one essay means that some pretty important information was withheld from a previous essay.

“It was my father’s dream that one day the people of the world would be connected to one another through a network of blocky, refrigerator-size computers…He envisioned families of the future gathered around their mammoth terminals, ordering groceries and paying their taxes from the comfort of their own homes…’I mean, my God,’ he’d say, ‘just think about it.’ My sisters and I preferred not to. I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.”

Apparently Sedaris has attracted some controversy for the questionable veracity of his non-fiction, to the extent that some magazines that regularly publish him label the work as fiction. It’s fairly clear in some stories that there’s an element of exaggeration if nothing else, but this doesn’t bother me at all, as they’re so very well written.

Sedaris really is a great humorist, making me laugh out loud and save up so many great quotes that I ended up reading whole essays out to Tim for him to share the fun. Sedaris makes genuinely funny observations on an at first glance unremarkable life – he’s been a drug addict and lived in Paris and New York, so it’s hardly been a dull life, but he somehow paints it as painfully ordinary, while also making it wildly interesting.

“If you happen to live there, it’s always refreshing to view Manhattan from afar. Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases, but from a distance it inspires fantasies of wealth and power so profound that even our communists are temporarily rendered speechless.”

What I’ll admit I did find odd is that there is no reference to Sedaris becoming a writer, and a successful one at that. The second half of the book deals with his time in France with his partner Hugh, from shorter trips and language difficulties to moving there full-time and taking French lessons (from which the title of the book comes). These essays feel like a series, like they had been commissioned and were being written in the moment, as indeed they were. This was long after Sedaris had achieved some success telling his stories on NPR, but he continues to refer to taking odd jobs and helping Hugh do up his rural French cottage, while never talking about writing or being a writer. It’s almost as though he wants to maintain the character built up in the first half of the book, that of a lovable loser, a disappointment for not making the most of his comfortable middle-class start in life. Perhaps he wanted to save writing on writing for another time, or perhaps he thought it a dull subject. I’m more than happy to read more of his books to find out!

First published in 2000 by Little, Brown & Company.

Source: Blackwells, Oxford.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

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