Ok, confession time. I’ve often seen David Sedaris’s book Me Talk Pretty One Day in bookshops, and thought it was a good title. At some point along the way, this noticing must have developed into delusion, because for some reason I was sure it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems. Erm… nope. Turns out it’s memoir.
A similar thing happened with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) which I received from my friend Laura in a book group Secret Santa in 2011. I took it up to the Lake District with me, thinking it was a novel. Indeed, I was about thirty pages into it before someone referred to the narrator as David, and I suddenly realised that (a) the narrator wasn’t a woman, and (b) it was autobiographical. I felt somewhat justified in my false assumption, though, scouring the blurb, because nowhere does it say that it’s autobiographical. Lots of talking about him being a humorist par excellence (more on that anon), comparing him to Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde (because they have so much in common…), and talking about ‘his world’, which I suppose is a clue, but could equally apply to the world created by a novelist. Eventually, in tiny letters by the barcode, I found the word ‘autobiography’, and all was solved.
As when I read Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet and only discovered halfway through that Ali was a man, it was an instructive lesson in how such things influence my reading. When I thought it was a novel, I was quite enjoying it; when I discovered it was a sequence of autobiographical essays, I started to really like it. And I wouldn’t be able to tell you quite why that was, except that true events don’t need to be as sparklingly innovative or well-structured – they have the virtue, instead, of being true.
Many of the anecdotes do have the ring of fiction, though – truth stranger than fiction and all that. I found the tales of Sedaris’s life in his first apartment away from home rather unnerving, with the kleptomaniac young girl next door – then there is the time he is mistaken for an erotic cleaner. As you are. But the word ‘family’ is in the title for a reason, and it is Sedaris’s vivid depiction of his family which makes this book so extraordinary (and, one presumes, the same is true of his other memoirs – indeed, I don’t know how he had this many stories left to tell after publishing all those other essay collections).
Don’t go thinking this is Swiss Family Robinson or Little Women, though – Sedaris’s family is a pretty bizarre bunch, with many unpleasant elements. And Sedaris doesn’t sugar coat. His sporty, brash, vulgar brother is no treat; there is more affection when he discusses his sister Lisa, and her feelings about potentially being portrayed in a film of his books. There is, of course, an irony in publishing an essay about choosing to shield his family from intrusion, but it is still a beautiful moment nonetheless.
There are a couple of misfires in the collection. I could have done without his story of manipulating children to undress and sit on his knee – not (to my mind) wholly redeemed by the fact that he was also a child at the time. The vignette of house-hunting and finding the ideal home in Anne Frank’s attic was a one-line dark joke which didn’t work as an essay. But that is not a bad hit rate, out of 22 essays.
What makes these essays special, and wonderfully readable, is Sedaris’s eye. He lets us into his family circle – with every blemish well known, and every annoying trait magnified through repetition, but also with a glow of affection – sometimes, for Sedaris, reluctant – which cannot truly evaporate. How he gets this into words, and through the most eccentric anecdotes, I have no idea. But it works brilliantly. I am far from the first to discover the wonder of Sedaris’s tone, but perhaps I am not the last – and I want to encourage you, particularly if you are in the US where his books are everywhere (why didn’t I buy any when I was there?!) to pick this up and see what you think. The good personal essay, the expertly wry memoir, are seldom found. My thanks are due to Laura, for giving me a copy of this at a Secret Santa and giving me a chance to find an excellent practitioner of that rare form!