When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
Maybe I’m projecting a little having just gone through my own quarter-life crisis, but something strange has happened to David Sedaris. In his new book When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the author seems to have finally grown up. Sedaris departs from his usual laugh-out-loud tales of everyday coincidence and family dysfunction focusing instead on the consequences of getting old (something that torments me every time a new gray hair pops up and requires plucking). Reflecting on half a century gone by, the author wonders, “How [have] 9,125 relatively uneventful days passed so quickly and how can I keep it from happening again?” Much of the book is spent in such self-reflection as if Sedaris is both hosting and starring in an episode of This is Your Life with us as his live studio audience.
The author’s fascination with age is grotesquely and most profoundly brought to life in “The Monster Mash,” an essay about Sedaris’s experience at a medical examiner’s office. Fatalistically he writes, “No one is safe. The world is not manageable. The trick-or-treater may not be struck down on Halloween, but sooner or later he is going to get it, as am I and everyone I have ever cared about.” Despite this grim outlook on life, Sedaris still manages at times to make death seem funny, appropriately trivializing his, my and your personal existence. He continues, “Everything you know and love can be undone by a grape.” Sedaris, usually known for his boyish arrogance, finally seems to understand the limits of his own experience and the insignificance of it all, adding, “How conceited I am to think I might be remembered.”
Though cynicism and pessimism are overwhelmingly present in Sedaris’s latest work, there are moments of hope and positivity about the future, especially toward the book’s end. He asserts, “Given enough time, I guess anything can look good. All it has to do is survive.” This quickly becomes a repeated but unspoken mantra during Sedaris’s drawn out attempt to quit smoking, the focus of the book’s last half. Though “The Smoking Section” is a bit lengthy, it is the work’s most hopeful segment—a reminder that just because we are all going to die doesn’t mean we have to give up or continue to get better.
Overall, Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames is a pleasurable read—realistic, cynical and cheerful about the inescapable future. It may disappoint those who are looking for the author’s usual slap-sticky style, but for those of us dealing with our own mortality, it’s a much-appreciated departure from the usual.
(Photo: Anne Fishbein)