In class on Tuesday, we discussed the way in which Sedaris’ specific stories in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim somehow have a universal effect. I really felt that way—as if I was now a friend of Sedaris, as if when I was reading we were in fact hanging out, but I didn’t really know how to articulate how he achieved this fantastic reading experience. When I started reading the second half, I began in search of an explanation. Immediately, within the story “Blood Work,” I found my answer: I found that, like Hau’ofa, Sedaris has an ability to take a humorous concept and make it physical, tangible and therefore completely understandable; although I have never been cleaning someone’s apartment as they blatantly masturbate in front of the television, Martin becomes “the topless stay-at-home-wife,” anyone who tries the “striptease” on an “unexpecting” audience, or anyone who makes themselves vulnerable to anyone else. Sedaris writes,
Like the cough of a sick person, Martin’s efforts broadcast germs, a debilitating shame bug that traveled across the room in search of a new host. How terrible it is to be wrong, to go out on a limb and make an advance that isn’t reciprocated. I thought of the topless stay-at-home-wife, opening the door to the gay UPS driver, of all those articles suggesting you surprise that certain someone by serving dessert in the nude or offering up an unexpected striptease (133).
First, Sedaris makes physical the “shame bug,” explaining and exploring the way in which shame, embarrassment and awkward tensions literally “travel across the room” to seize everyone present; even the bystanders somehow get zapped with feelings of shame just by their passive presence in an uncomfortable situation. In doing so, Sedaris forces us to feel awkward right along with him as he vacuums ferociously to avoid the “whacking” sounds of Martin’s masturbation. We become both Martin and Sedaris simultaneously reminded of times in which we have felt the sting of rejection and of times in which we have felt the emanating shame of embarrassment.
What I found most profound within the story, “Blood Work,” was Sedaris’ expression of understanding even towards Martin and his somewhat disturbing actions. The two men, both trapped in the smoldering apartment with completely different visions of the encounter, become one in Sedaris’ narrative; he writes, “It had now become the kind of masturbation that’s an exercise in determination rather than pleasure. You’d give up but goddammit, you’re the kind of person who carries a job through to the end, whether it’s making a fool of yourself in front of a stranger or vacuuming somebody’s living room” (pg. 134). Sedaris describes Martin’s masturbation as “an exercise in determination rather than pleasure,” and in describing the “determination” he juxtaposes their two determined acts, saying “it’s making a fool of yourself in front of a stranger or vacuuming somebody’s living room.” Their roles in the story transform from those of opposition to those of similarity and even solidarity. Sedaris’ method of presenting situations as physical, common, an unspoken feeling that we all feel creates both universality and solidarity between both the Martins and the Sederises.