In late 2016, David Sedaris attended a piano recital delivered by his longtime partner, Hugh. Hugh had practised with obsessive intensity for many hours a day, but ultimately performed poorly, disappointing himself in front of a room full of his fellow students and their parents. ‘I’ve never seen him so vulnerable,’ Sedaris wrote that night in his diary, excerpted here in a second curated volume of entries, which he has said are a small fraction of the nearly ten million words he has ‘handwritten or typed’ as part of this project since 1977. ‘I wanted to be perfect,’ Hugh said after the recital. ‘I … need to be perfect.’ ‘It’s such a burden to place on yourself,’ Sedaris reflects, suggesting that perfection, being unattainable, is an unreasonable and immeasurable goal. Instead, ‘the key is to fill the space between your skill level and perfection with charm.’
I don’t think it’s a slight to say that this is the formula Sedaris has leveraged to build a remarkable, sui generis career as a humorist, essayist and monologist. It has earned him extraordinary acclaim and, as he writes in this book with bewilderment and delight, wealth. If you are generally well disposed to him, but find that the particular imperfections of latter-day Sedaris grate on you, you could give this new book and its predecessor a try: they’re different, if perhaps not different enough.
I first encountered Sedaris the way most Americans my age did: as a voice on National Public Radio, reciting his essay ‘Santaland Diaries’. The 1990s were a time of disillusionment for American Gen-X strivers; the era of out-earning one’s parents had come to a close just as our student loans came due, and the rescue promised by the incoming Clinton administration was never to materialise. To hear a sardonic gay man in his thirties complain of his shitty gig as a shopping-mall elf – on a news outlet just beginning the grim process of ceding its integrity to political both-sidesism – was revelatory. Sedaris was on our team! Eye-rolling, chain-smoking, above it all, he became a mascot to the disaffected American educated class, and for the next decade I’d turn up the car radio whenever his voice came on, and dog-ear his New Yorker essays – about choosing an owl at a taxidermist’s, about being sexually propositioned while hitchhiking – to return to later as a reward for getting through the day.
Over the years, though, I grew weary of his shtick. He found love, moved to France, got famous. Sardonic condescension may have suited the squirrelly scrounger from North Carolina, but it was a poor fit for the European sophisticate he’d become, however self-mockingly he inhabited the role. His writing has remained competent and straightforward, but memorable prose was never part of Sedaris’s appeal. He writes like a performer: one senses, reading his essays, that they were destined first and foremost for a live audience or audiobook, where his eccentric personal presentation would carry the work. His books, then, are like collections of song lyrics: they go down easy, remind you of something you like – but you wish you could hear the music.
These diaries, though, have made me appreciate Sedaris again. I had been sceptical of the entire project, which sounded like a boondoggle, a way of repackaging already familiar and profitable stories. And yes, many entries in these two books clearly served as source material for Sedaris’s most popular works. But I was surprised to find I like this version of the writer much more than the shapely, mannered comedian of the essays. What’s good about Sedaris are his eye and ear: his ability to recognise a funny turn of phrase, a quixotic character, an uncomfortable social situation. That’s all these books are: assemblages of small observations and minor dramas that would otherwise be forgotten, free of the burdens of dramatic structure and rhetorical form. More is left to the imagination.
In the introduction to the first volume, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 (2017), the reader is instructed to ‘dip in and out’ rather than read ‘from start to finish’. Of course I didn’t take that advice and read them both cover to cover. It’s true that these books are a lot of Sedaris to take in, and don’t benefit from sustained, immersive consumption. But there are a few long arcs that emerge if you read them in order: Sedaris’s gradual recovery from addiction and his subsequent obsession with exercise; the slow, sad decline of his literary agent, Don; the ageing of his large and eccentric family and the especially wrenching story of his mentally ill sister Tiffany.
The most interesting of these serendipitous narratives, though, is Sedaris’s reckoning with his own nature, as the traits he developed to defend himself against the world gradually become superfluous, then burdensome. The first volume of the diaries was a rags-to-riches story (‘David Copperfield Sedaris’, as Hugh puts it in the new book’s introduction); this one is the story of a self-identified loner, misanthrope and underdog figuring out what to do with the world’s unanticipated and loving embrace. A Carnival of Snackery may lack the intensity and grit of its predecessor, and is lighter on both drugs and plot. (‘If somebody had told me forty years ago that this was in my future,’ Sedaris writes after enjoying a board game with Hugh in their cosy English cottage, ‘I would have spit on him.’) But ‘light on plot’ is what most writers want out of life, and it’s hard to begrudge Sedaris the kind of experiences his ambitions have bestowed on him, even if the result is a diary rife with shopping sprees, expensive restaurants and first-class international flights.
A recurring character here, and in the essays that made Sedaris famous, is his father, a sarcastic, pig-headed Republican who becomes increasingly and angrily conservative in the era of Fox News. In his nineties, he falls ill and moves into assisted living, where he is somehow transformed into a friendly, gentle old man. Sedaris, movingly, is initially confounded by his own inability to feel for the man, then gradually softens, until he’s able to experience compassion and concern as Covid-19 arrives. These diaries are that experience writ large: the adventures of a man who, having joked his way through a world he loved to hate, has to figure out how to be happy. And whatever its failings, it is also, of course, a book full of extreme characters, amusing anecdotes, funny animal encounters, awkward situations and wry asides.
In no particular order:
David buys a skeleton for Hugh. (‘How do you wrap it?’ he wonders.)
A bunch of 15-year-old hooligans harass some children at a public pool, and David, though appalled, is left ‘awestruck’ at their extraordinary skill.
After reading that a teenager in Hawaii has been fined for slapping a seal, David happily ponders how satisfying it would be to do so, and the sound it would make, so much ‘wetter, meatier’ than clapping your hands.
David goes to lunch with the grande dame of comedy, Phyllis Diller, who brings her own little bottle of vinegar along with her and says: ‘God, I love morphine.’
David marvels at the story of a woman who breastfed a baby beaver to adulthood, and is vexed by the story of an Alabama lawmaker who wants to ban books featuring homosexuals – not the tragic ones, just the happy ones. ‘Which one am I?’ David wonders.
David tells Hugh that, when he dies, he would like to be taken ‘to an ice crematorium. There I would like a traditional sundae service.’
At readings, where Sedaris typically signs books for hours, he passes the time by asking his readers questions designed to spark conversation. What do they do for a living? Do they know any unusual curses? (They do.) Have they ever been stabbed? (They have.) To men: in a restaurant, would you share dessert with another man? (Most say no.) To bearded men: does your father own guns? (Most say yes.)
Some readers in the book-signing queue, familiar with this tactic, try to turn the tables and shock Sedaris, who likes to shock them back in turn, as in this exchange in Tulsa in 2014:
At last night’s book signing a young woman approached me, asking: ‘If you were a paedophile, and you knew you could be cured after having sex with a single baby, would you do it or would you continue on with a life of celibacy?’
It was a good question, but, for me, an easy one. ‘Sex with the baby.’
‘But it would scar him for life.’
‘Not if he just blew me,’ I said. ‘I mean, you never said intercourse.’
‘That’s true,’ she whispered.
‘But he’d have to be white,’ I told her. ‘For me, it’s a white baby or nothing.’
While I appreciate Sedaris’s healthy disrespect for the sensitivities of the age, I take a dim view of the way it sometimes leads him to outright meanness. He’s dismissive of a hearing-impaired clerk at a supermarket who doesn’t understand that he doesn’t want a bag, and he would prefer disabled people to find ‘something, well, that can be accomplished at home’. He interviews for a volunteer position as a companion to the elderly, and baulks at the required sensitivity training: ‘such bullshit in my opinion’. He makes snap judgments of foreign countries based on their food or on the level of tidiness on the streets he happens to be driven down. And I could have done without the ‘dirty’ jokes, most of them misogynistic, that are related to him by fans, which he’s welcome to be entertained by but which don’t need to be perpetuated in a bestselling book.
To his credit, though, Sedaris’s meanness recedes as the years go by, and he settles into his stable and affluent life as a popular entertainer. His cruelty is supplanted, perhaps unfortunately, by stories about the difficulty of buying a seven-room apartment on the Upper East Side, or the tragedy of losing an Apple Watch at an airport. It feels as though Sedaris includes these moments as a way of keeping it real: if he’s going to write about making $3.41 an hour sorting apples in 1978, then, dammit, he’s going to write about buying a designer jacket in Paris and having it tailored in London in 2019! But the former, unfortunately, is more interesting – even if the latter gives him the opportunity to make a good joke at another rich man’s expense.
Sedaris’s wealth does lead him to a few of the more striking scenes in the book, as in 2005, when his bank card stops working while on tour, and he experimentally begins asking the audience to give him money. By the end of the evening he’s been given $243. ‘A pauper standing outside the bookstore might have earned three dollars in change, but for some reason people love giving money to someone who already has it.’ A decade later, in Illinois, a woman tries to give him $500 and argues with him when he declines, until she’s escorted from the venue. He can’t imagine his younger, poorer self turning down that money. ‘What my former self didn’t know is that it’s never really free. There’s always something attached to it.’
Unlike most of the previous book, this one was written entirely with eventual publication in mind, and it shows, especially in the back half. But the best moments in A Carnival of Snackery are the least considered, the least consciously mannered – the ones whose primary audience is Sedaris himself. One observation I keep thinking about showcases him at his most delightfully oblique: he reads that Aeschylus died in 456 BC when an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a rock, dropped a tortoise on it. Sedaris’s reaction: eagles make mistakes?
He doesn’t elaborate, and I wonder which figure in this story Sedaris identifies with. Is he Aeschylus, the noble poet who suffers the most ridiculous imaginable fate? Is he the eagle, frustrated and confused by his own shortcomings? Or is he the tortoise, saved from death by comedy? Maybe he’s all three, and that’s why the story stuck with him. Or maybe he just likes funny animals.
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