Back in the days when I’d only dimly heard of David Sedaris, the book I had heard of was Me Talk Pretty One Day. Based on the title alone, I was under the assumption that it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems. It was perhaps that which led to me getting an embarrassingly long way into Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim before realising that it was not a novel about a young girl. But now, on my third Sedaris book, I’m in the swing of things – he writes humorous essays about his own life. But you probably know that already.
This collection is (I believe) his bestselling title, and it is extremely funny. The focus is not so much on his family as it was in the other two books I read, although the first few stories do take place among those many brothers and sisters. They’re anecdotes, really, more than stories – about how David’s father forced them all to play instruments, with the misguided idea that they would become almost instantly proficient; about his overly-invested speech therapist; about tanning competitions on the beach. His eye for an anecdote is perfect. Sedaris is endlessly dry, self-deprecating, and able to find the humour in any experience – often through the throwing in of a bizarrely specific detail or unlikely piece of dialogue. Are all his reminiscences accurate? One assumes not. They are exaggerated at the very least. But that doesn’t matter a jot.
The two main sections of Me Talk Pretty One Day deal with Sedaris’ student years and his experiences trying to learn French. I’m always amazed at how many things Sedaris has crammed in his life, and one of those is a period during which he thought he’d try his hand at performance art. It is all extremely amusing (as that topic is more or less set up to be), even given my discomfort at reading about drug-taking. What makes it so brilliant is the dry, eye-rolling narrative that subtly looks back on disaffected, youthful David from the vantage of disaffected, middle-aged David. And when it comes served with sentences like the following, what more could you want? He is the master of putting together a sentence that neatly wraps up the ridiculous without making a song and dance about it:
I enrolled as an art major at a college known mainly for its animal-husbandry programme.
But the most sustained theme I’ve seen in the three books I’ve read so far is, as mentioned, his attempts to learn French and live in France (thanks to the French-dwelling of his partner Hugh). It is these experiences that give the collection its title – with a sort of oh-I-see sense that eluded me with Dress Your Family in Corduory and Denim and Let’s Discuss Diabetes With Owls. From his first venture to France, knowing only the French for bottleneck, to his intense lessons with an aggressive teacher, to living fairly confidently off phrases cribbed from medical audiobooks… His lessons sounded brutal, but also led to some amusing moments (of course), and this one gives a good example to Sedaris’ style for those who haven’t read him:
“And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?”
It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun.
“Might one sing on Bastille Day?” she asked. “Might one dance in the streets? Somebody give me an answer.”
Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays accompanied by a scattered arrangement of photograph depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object of the lesson was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the pronoun they. I didn’t know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven.
I love that sort of pay-off at the end of that; the detail that is curiously specific and off-kilter, but carefully within the world that Sedaris has created. This world isn’t the real world, and isn’t a fictional universe, but it’s a beautiful, bizarre, grumpy, and very amusing realm that Sedaris has both created and made his own.
Oh, and I forgot to say – Liz very kindly gave me this copy; thanks so much, Liz!