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March 11, 2012

  • Bowdlerizing David Sedaris
  • A few months after I was married, I finally opened the collection of humorous memoirs and short fiction, Me Talk Pretty One Day by American writer David Sedaris. It was a wedding present from my friend Natasja, who I maintain is one of the funniest people I know, so I presumed she knew her stuff. And she did. I was hooked by Sedaris from his first tale in that collection, “Go State” about an elementary school speech therapist’s obsessive campaign to eradicate Sedaris’ lisp.

    Sedaris’ writing was funny but moreover it was heartbreakingly observant. He writes with what I might call painful beauty. He has an incredible sense of the obscure and absurd but he’s also unbelievably raw and blunt. No one writes memoirs like him: so unsentimental but so beautiful at the same time.

    imageThe more I read, the more I admired the courageous way he wrote. He wrote memoirs that were, for lack of a better word, cutthroat. He would always tell his truth he saw in a situation, particularly in writing about his family and friends (even the stories he tells about himself). There seemed to be nothing he would leave out in a depiction of a situation. And he had no problem about writing about a lot of messed-up shit, when it came down to it.

    I was so impressed I took to sharing it with my wife Julie. At that point I would read to her in bed (that was back when I was still in my 30s and my body clock allowed me to stay up past midnight; now I’m lucky if I make it past 11). Julie loved his stories as much as I did. It was a bright spot.

    As time went on, I bought other David Sedaris books and read them aloud before bed as well. We particularly loved the story which made his name, “The Santaland Diaries” about his career as a Macy’s Elf and I loved just about any story with his brother, known as the Rooster, because I could swear while attempting a South Carolina accent.

    At one point, Julie had extended stays on business in St. Louis. I was at the time working in Mississauga. Our marriage was entirely made up of phone calls usually late at night. For my wife, working on a highly stressful consulting assignment, anything whatsoever that could distract her and help her go to sleep was welcome. With my books in a residence where neither of us were living in at the time, I took to looking for whatever David Sedaris had written for the New Yorker on their website (at the New Yorker had a relatively liberal attitude toward providing content online) and reading them to her by phone.

    It got to a point where Julie would call, I would pick up the phone and all Julie would say would be, “Is that the David Sedaris storyline?”

    Those stories of awkward relationships on trains, arguing about the merits French, determining how insane the Dutch version of Santa Claus really is, attempting to learn guitar from a little person who played Jose Feliciano, and such sustained us. We lived through some hard times after I was abruptly left unemployed mostly because at night I could read some funny, sad, and fascinating story and end the day with a little bit of a smile on my face.

    Here’s the thing though: I wasn’t reading all of the stories.

    Julie has a highly visceral imagination. You can say a sentence and Julie will picture all the details of it with utter, vivid clarity. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her, if the truth be told. But it means certain things are best left unsaid: Gross things. Violent things. Violent and gross things.

    Consequently I took to, for lack of a better term, Bowdlerizing David Sedaris.

    I can’t really say if I was particularly conscious of it. There were some stories—like Sedaris’ satirical holiday tale about two families whose charitable rivalry takes to donating their internal organs—that I’d skip over knowing they wouldn’t be well received. Others, like the one which ends in David and his sister Amy watching a video with genital mutilation, was gently ended three or four paragraphs early.

    If I thought of it at all, I probably thought no harm, no foul. Julie doesn’t get material that upsets her before bed (and for that matter, neither do I) but she gets a story that is still thoughtful, soulful and beautifully written. It’s censorship, but a benign one.

    Until the day we met David Sedaris.

    When I say we I mean myself and at least 1000 other people at the Indigo bookstore on Rideau Street in Ottawa. Sedaris was there on a tour for his new book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. I was so excited: our favourite author, the man behind the David Sedaris storyline, the guy who gave us something to chuckle at before bed when it looked like nothing would.

    The entire second floor of Indigo was packed. I went down to the main level to buy our books to have autographed. Julie went to go find a place for us to sit. By the time I came back, a substantial autograph line had formed and I joined it. Julie was on the other side of the room not quite seated but not quite able to come be with me.

    So we opted to wait for David Sedaris to give his reading from our respective spots. I took to reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which I bought to have signed (along with two copies of his latest book and a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day to replace the one that was water damaged in circumstances to mundane to relate). I flipped through a story which ends in David’s sister Amy pointing out to him a magazine where men and horses had conjugal relations. “I’ll have to avoid that one with Julie,” I thought.

    I have to say, David Sedaris was not what I was expecting. From his work he seemed so self-effacing and witty, I guess I was expecting a gay male Dorothy Parker. What I got was a Catskills comedian. He was all about schtick: puns, one liners. He took pride in a machine he was given that made rimshots or chuckles.

    And he read two stories from his book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, a series of animal fables where animals socialize like humans while doing animally things. The first one was the story from which the collection was named. I liked it. Then he announced he was doing a story that was cut from the book (but was on the audiobook). And he began to recite a story where two bugs discuss their lives while masticating and regurgitating food in Grand Central Station.

    It was one of those moments like in a movie where, in slow motion, I turned toward Julie, trapped in the crowd at the other side of the room and thought, “NOOOOOOOOO!”

    Afterward, Julie seemed okay about it all. We stood in line for an hour and a half to get our things signed. Sedaris himself was a trooper; he signed for every single person in line. All he asked was to tell him a joke. I badly retold something funny I heard Robin Williams tell. He heard it before. Julie and I awkwardly tried to tell him about the David Sedaris storyline, which he didn’t seem to get, and a few other things that Julie wrote down on the back of a business card. Honestly, he seemed to find the two perky girls ahead of us more interesting. But he was friendly enough.

    The new copies of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and When You Are Engulfed In Flames sat on my bedside table for a couple of days unread. Then one day I found them on my desk in the office. I asked Julie why they were there.

    “I can’t get that awful story out of my mind,” she said. I just nodded.

    I had hoped that David Sedaris would get a temporary suspension rather than a lifetime ban, but I’ve never been able to negotiate a second chance for Mr. Sedaris’ stories. And, to be truthful, now that I’m aware of how much I had to cut out, perhaps it’s for the best.

    We don’t read anything in bed now. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report bids us to sleep. It’s not as achingly beautiful, but at least we go to bed with a smile on our faces.

    Posted by graeme | (1) Comments | Permalink

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    Scot  on  03/12  at  07:56 PM

    Great column entry.  I know the story of course, but quite enjoyed the retelling with all the flourishes and points of detail.

    It’s funny because I’m always tempted to send a copy as a gift to some friend or other and I’m always keenly aware that there are a handful of stories that won’t wash well with this person or that.

    I think I like Sedaris in the same way I appreciate all the eclectic and very different relationships I have in my life. In fact his books perfectly sum up my bizarre ability to appreciate such disparate people.

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