23 September, 2008

'Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim' - David Sedaris

David Sedaris' work poses a conundrum for those keen to categorise what they read. His writing is of a style that needs a new, multi-hyphenated name to sum it up. Let's start, instead, with what it isn't.

It's not fiction. Sedaris is very clear that his writing comes from real events in his life. His family are his key characters: his four sisters and younger brother have learnt that their idiosyncrasies are fodder for their brother's embellishment, whether it be the over-the-top southerner in his male sibling approaching fatherhood, or his sister's curious phone habits. His parents - those who would choose the fabrics of the title for their brood - flesh out stories of family holidays at the coast, with plans to buy their rented house that are as spontaneously scuppered as they were hatched. His partner of twenty years, Hugh, features sporadically as well, often provoking Sedaris' deeper musings.

It's not short story. While Sedaris is an excellent story teller - building drama, intrigue, suspense and twists that stop short of being outrageous as we trust they are grounded (shallowly or not) in some truth - this is not a collection of short stories in the ilk of Robert Drewe, Nam Le or similar. One piece about a truly bizarre appointment when working as an apartment cleaner would surely be struck out of a fictional collection as too ridiculous.

Nor are they essays (although this is often the preferred label). This often drier, more formal style of writing presents pieces formulated on argument, research and persuasion. Sedaris does on occasion push an agenda - musing on love or on some of our less-spoken-about peccadilloes (such as the need he has on occasion to touch the back of a person's head) - but his writing is anything but academic.

What about biography or memoir? These suggest a linear telling of someone's life, whereas Sedaris' pieces instead sit aside one another like fallen cards, recounting events from childhood (a sleepover involving strip poker), his current life in France (and a busload of lost tourists coming across him drowning a mouse at 3 am), teenagehood and early adulthood.

Humour? Well, he's funny. He has the skill to invoke out-loud laughs through words on a page, a rare gift. But his social observation takes him far beyond the reach of most comedians who swap talking for typing.

So let's create a new label for him. But who else could carry the same label in order to flesh out the genre, make it worth a whole shelf and having new placemarkers printed?

Enough questions. A quick glance at Dymocks' web page sees the words 'memoir', 'essay' and 'biography' used for just one of Sedaris' volume, so that doesn't quite clear things up.

What is does mean is that reading Sedaris can remind us that words can be manipulated infinitely. We don't have to keep re-inventing the one story, to stick with formulas, to pick a style and confine our writing within it. Instead, there are those among us who never switch off their capacity to be intrigued, their ability to see something profound in the ordinary and, to the great good luck of their audience, can then transpose that event into words that engage, interest and amuse.


  1. Currently reading "NAKED" as my first Sedaris fascination. WOW!

    Will read anything he writes, the humor is crisp, intelligent and it mirrors many thoughts unsaid.

  2. Hey Joydancer. Great adjectives to describe Sedaris' humour. And you're right, he is a writer who will go to places that others might shy from, but (to borrow one of your words) he does it intelligently, rather than sensationally.