I have to start out by saying that I am a huge David Sedaris fan, so I went into reading this book with pretty high expectations. Unfortunately, my expectations were too high and I was pretty disappointed with his newest collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Because I love Sedaris, I read through the whole thing in just a couple days, but it felt more like a reading out of obligation rather than reading for the excitement of it.
The biggest problem with the collection is that it isn’t new — most of the essays are pieces that have already been published, and the version published in the book is simply an edited or slightly revised essay. In many cases this wouldn’t be a problem, but there is something about these pieces that doesn’t bear repeating so many times. In “Buddy, Can You Spare A Tie,” Sedaris recounts a series of misadventures dressing himself including being persuaded no one could tell he was wearing women’s clothing or the struggles of accessorizing as a man. The problem is that I’ve read or heard the story about Sedaris buying the Stadium Pal at least twice, and while I laughed out loud the first time I imagined him peeing himself, it seems that the image loses something when read over and over again.
The thing I’ve always loved about Sedaris is the way his essays wrap and twist around, going to places you don’t think are going to work, then coming back to a clincher at the end that helps everything make sense. The essays in this book use that format, but it doesn’t seem as elegant or inspired as I feel like some of his other works have been. Instead, the essays begin to feel formulaic: silly opening anecdote, story about Sedaris and family/Hugh, tangentially related anecdote, really great line, tangentially related anecdote, clever last line tying the story together and back to the first silly story.
If I had to pick a highlight of the collection, it would be the chapter “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle.” This piece doesn’t fit the formula of most of the other essays, and I think gives more insight into Sedaris than most of the other essays to. The premise of the conflict is simple — while traveling to Raleigh, the woman sitting next to Sedaris asks him to switch seats so she can sit next to her husband. Sedaris refuses, for a characteristically ridiculous reason, which results in a cold war between himself and the “whore” sitting next to him. In a passive aggressive streak that would make a Minnesotan proud, Sedaris proceeds to deal with his frustration at the woman by writing nasty things about her in his crossword puzzle, all the while hoping that people will judge him less harshly because of how intelligent he must seem because he can complete a Saturday New York Times puzzle:
I kept telling myself I was within my rights, but I knew it wasn’t working when I turned back to my puzzle and started listing the various reasons why I was not an asshole.
Forty across: “I give money to p—”
Forty-six down: “—ublic radio.”
I heard Sedaris read this essay a couple years ago in Fargo, before it was part of the book and had only been published as an essay called “Turbulence.” Hearing him read the piece was wonderful — I highly recommend listening to Sedaris read if you have the opportunity.
Other than that, most of the other stories blur together. The longest, and I think only new piece in the book, is about Sedaris’ three-month trip to Japan in order to quit smoking. The anecdotes about Japanese culture are quite funny, but for someone with so much spare time and quirky lifestyle choices, I feel like Sedaris could have done better with this essay and the remainder of the book. Overall, I enjoyed the essays and enjoyed reading the book, but felt a little cheated having spent good money on a hardcover book that I had essentially read already.
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