Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Well Crafted Laughter

I don’t know about anyone else, but after Tuesday’s class, I YouTubed a bunch of David Sedaris’ readings just to hear him tell his stories. Tuesday’s discussion also genuinely helped me to hone in on some of the subtleties of his writing. First, I think I can finally put into words what I’d been trying to describe to myself since I started reading: Sedaris’ work is beautifully, hilariously balanced. The way he threads his stories between blatant exaggeration and whispering subtlety makes me consider Mark Twain’s “How to Tell a Story.” There is perfection in Sedaris’ rambling digressions, his blunt honesty that practically shouts at you from the pages your reading, and his quiet pleasure in ultimately having the last (at least written) word.
Two stories that affected me particularly this time, and whether for better or worse I can’t quite say because I most definitely still laughed, were “Possession” and “Chicken in the Henhouse.”
“Possession,” first simply seemed to me like one big simile: “Finding an apartment is a lot like falling in love” (180). In fact, that simile stretches on for the first eleven paragraphs. So, when I was suddenly reading Anne Frank’s name, I had to flip back a few pages to reassure myself I was still reading the correct story. While this story wasn’t my favorite, I feel it illustrated just how good Sedaris is at this whole story-telling-thing. This story felt something like two stories colliding midsentence. Beginning with his initially never-ending simile, Sedaris runs into an instance of reverence that reads as irreverence. He’s not the most reverent guy to begin with: “A riding accident, a playhouse fire: lots of things can [hopefully] happen to little girls” (181) who plan to inherit his apartment. And upon reading the story, I kept telling myself, I like this guy, but does he have the right to talk about Anne Frank that way? This topic has come up in class again and again: who has the right to make these jokes, to use this humor, to target these people? And why? These aren’t Sedaris’ family members he’s talking about who, because they’ve shared their entire lives with him, are inevitably going to find themselves in his writing. This is Anne Frank! I think this story speaks to the subconscious irreverent attitudes we all fall victim to and as a result, the way we can lose sight of what’s right in front of us. There are stories and then there are stories, and Anne Frank’s falls into the latter category, but on any particular day we’re too busy, too caught up in what we want, need, or see only superficially, to do what Sedaris advocated in the book’s first half with the Tomkeys: pay attention to real life because there are stories and truth there. I thought it was most interesting that Sedaris described looking out the window “wondering who could have [turned in Anne Frank and her family], and caught [his] reflection staring back at [him]” (187). But beyond that reflection was the most wonderful apartment, after all. He describes himself as in a sort of frenzy while “touring” the house and I get the sense that he knows how easy it is to find yourself indifferent: indifferent to stories, life, people you love, apartments that are probably just fine. Reading, I can’t quite decide if he reconciles this dilemma, but his awareness is clear. Perhaps that’s what gives him the right to talk about Anne Frank, to write about her home and describe how he would effectively demolish any evidence of her ever having lived there?
The story of the “Chicken in the Henhouse” was, weirdly enough, relatable on a certain level. I have most definitely done that: gotten so angry over something that I find someone to blame, and fast. I also happen to love that Sedaris’ voice of reason sounds like Bea Arthur, because that makes a whole lot of sense. Once again, the issue of this story is its topic and the way in which Sedaris presents it. What struck me most was the build-up of this story, the gradual elevation: nervousness to sweat to compulsions to out-and-out terror to…. nothing. All of his worry that someone would inevitably see his homosexuality and know that it meant that his offer to assist Michael was really a ploy to molest him eventually leads to the least sinister misunderstanding I can think of. His guilt is, perhaps, the funniest element of the story and it truly allowed me to empathize with him because as a reader, I knew he was doing nothing wrong and of course, it’s not possible to tell him so. This story illustrated an important aspect of perception: it’s pretty much all in our heads.
Both of these stories seemed to be crafted and spun from many of our class discussions, highlighting the fact that many of the theorists we read ultimately blur together on paper in the very same story.

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