In David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed In Flames, he shows himself to be an unusually skilled writer. The book is a collection of twenty-two essays from over many years of his life, covering a range of topics. The author has a unique voice which uses elaborate metaphors, fringe content, and unusual description. David Sedaris breaks the normal rules of fiction through structure, writing style, and content. This is what makes the writing appealing and keeps the reader interested.
The selection below comes from an essay in the book called “Town and Country,” a short section where the author describes his companions on a plane ride. He thought that they were sophisticated, but they sat next to him and cursed like sailors. In this quote he is making his final reflections on them.
“I wished I could spend a week or two invisibly following behind them and seeing the world through their eyes. ‘Thanksgiving dinner my ass,’ I imagined them saying.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at LaGuardia.” (p. 168)
This is an example of the unique storyline. It would require the whole chapter to truly illustrate the vastness of the irregular storyline; but in this selection one sees how the author moves off the topic of the couple and starts a different part. The space between the sentences is how it is read. One story drops off and the other starts. This new part is a completely separate story about a cab driver that lectured Sedaris on sex. The cab driver brags about his sex life, this and that story climaxes with him yelling at the cab driver. Then the essay goes on and talks about his humorous discussion on sex with his sister. The last two are woven together in the end. He talks about how he was very negative to the taxi driver who told him to have a drink and watch porn, yet he was at his sister’s house laughing at an animal porn magazine. This larger essay has several examples of the writer’s unique style. Firstly, the storyline is not at all linear. The events are in chronological order, but not related. You have the entire storyline of the old couple and then the driver, then him at his sister’s house. Only the taxi story has a climax. The scene at his sister’s ends with a reflection on the parallels between the taxi driver’s suggestion and his situation. The first scene has some reflection, but mostly is just stating the story. A main characteristic of David Sedaris’s writing is he doesn’t connect it to larger ideas or talk about any larger concept of life or morals. Most writers (when recounting a story like this) consider the “resolution” part of the story line a solution. A greater idea is conveyed, the readers come away with something learned. David Sedaris just leaves the story sitting, without themes. In a way, he is saying, I will write for the sake of using words to tell just a scene.
The following section was taken from an essay titled “The Understudy.” Sedaris is recalling an experience with a baby sitter. She was not the regular one, and in this story he shows how she was a remarkably bad one. This section is where he is describing how he and his sibling wrote down their observations and theories about the baby sitter in a notebook. “There were pages of them, all written in desperate scrawl, with lots of exclamation points and underlined words. It was the sort of writing you might do when the ship is going down, the sort that would give your surviving loved ones an actual chill” (pg. 22). He uses strong language--“desperate scrawl” for example. This is also an extensive metaphor. It requires the reader to keep up with what is happening. While this isn’t unheard of it is more uncommon. This shows the flourishes that David Sedaris uses in his writing. It would have meant the same thing if he had said it was written sloppily, but the way he wrote it was much more interesting. The reader is intrigued by the way things are written, and how the author uses such uncommon descriptions.
This section is the very start of an essay titled “What I learned.” In it, David Sedaris talks about his experience of his college and post-college years. This is the very start of the essay. “as when I went to Princeton things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. … this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck, I used to tell myself.” This shows the kind of crazy metaphors that are used. This entire passage has little to do with what the writer is actually trying to communicate. It is an elaborate metaphor., but also it is described in such depth. It is almost as if it were a truth. This style of using a metaphor for a very long time, or going into a strange description is used through out the book. Many readers will find this section amusing purely because the absurdity of it. “We worshipped a God named Sashatiba” (made up) and “don’t look at his neck” are completely random details. Any teacher would tell their pupils to take this out as it was confusing to the reader and had no real purpose. These elaborate metaphors keep the reader interested because they require one’s attention. As a reader you might skim over this and be confused or lost, as stated the absurdity is funny. These seemingly random long descriptions provide humor, require thinking, and interest the reader. This is a large part of David Sedaris's writing and a reason why he is a good writer.
This is a book review of When You Are Engulfed In Flames published through the Independent, a mainstream UK news website. “David Sedaris is like being tickled on the ribs by someone you love: you laugh hysterically, feel a mixture of excitement and irritation, and instinctively wriggle away as exhaustion sets in. Sedaris writes about his everyday life, the co-stars being his family, partner Hugh, friends and neighbours.” The way Sedaris writes is what causes the “excitement” and humor. His way of writing is so different and counter to standard methods it creates these feelings. The quote says “a mixture of excitement and irritation.” The “irritation” comes from not being able to understand the interlaying and random paths of the story. It’s not the way our brains are wired or taught to read in. It provides a break from the norm and excitement because of that. Although Sedaris writes about his “everyday life,” the book is very interesting. The way he uses metaphors and throws in seemingly random thoughts is fresh, unexpected, and exciting.
The way the book was written has a drastic impact on the reader. The peculiar writing style of David Sedaris brings out a level of interest that is deeper than the specific interest in events of the story. These stories could not be standard on a usual story-structure map. The stories go in too many directions and don’t have enough action to be centralized in a climax. In many cases, multiple separate stories are told in one section. Unique flourishes of language and complex metaphors engage the reader. The way David Sedaris writes using metaphors, storyline (or lack there of), and description is the key to his success as a writer.
Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. 323. Print.
"When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/when-you-are-engulfed-in-flames-by-david-sedaris-856803.html>.