Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Relation and Red Forman

If the humor in David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy in Denim reminded me of anything else I’ve ever seen or read, it would definitely be That 70’s Show. The show is literally based upon what happened in the everyday lives of teenagers in the 1970s, and the theme of the show essentially states what happens in every episode: “Hangin’ out, down the street, the same old thing, we did last week…” While many theories of humor, including the incongruity and superiority models are used throughout both the show and the book to create humor, the common thread in each of these is the audience’s ability to relate to the material.
Perhaps my opinion that the show and Sedaris’ book are connected is unduly influenced by the fact that I couldn’t separate Red Forman and the Father in Sedaris’ book in my head. Red’s voice was literally imported onto the character of Sedaris’ father. Whenever the father in the book used the word “ass” I started cracking up as it brought to mind the image of Red calling someone a “dumbass” or threatening to make Eric (his son) “wear his ass as a hat.”
I think the obvious reason why both Sedaris’ book and That 70s Show cause people to laugh is that they easily connect into our lives. Not everyone is gay, but almost everyone has a father that might make them feel a bit emasculated every once in a while. Not everyone has been whacked in the mouth with a rock by a popular kid, but most have at least been in a fight or been rejected by a group. The reason that this sort of humor hits its target is because it utilizes universal situations to forge a connection between the characters and the audience. When Red calls his son a dumbass, frankly it brings to mind memories of my father rejecting me in one way or another. Another aspect of why this humor works is that especially with the fathers it allows the audience to say, “Holy crap, I’m so glad my dad wasn’t that much of a hardass.” It’s an example of the superiority model at work. We rejoice in the fact that things weren’t as bad for us.
In contrast to the stories in Tales of the Tikongs or Candide these stories were remarkably mundane and universal. They are funny not because they are ridiculous, but because they are average and we all experience them in some way or another. In the telling of these stories, Sedaris makes us remember our own pasts and laugh at them with him.

David Sedaris: Bearing the Burden of our Embarrassment

In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris uses a keen observing eye to point out some of the most hilarious, unseen and personal nooks and cranies of the American life he has lived. In the process, he indiscriminately draws in all self-conscious human beings by poviding a personal memoir with such exquisite detail that the reader can instantly recall moments of the human experience which are nearly, if not completely, universal. Many of these moments are mere passing thoughts that have crossed everyones mind, and should cause guilt and shame when they did not when we thought them. Some are the crazy idiosyncracies of life in any family.
In the first chapter, 'Us and Them', Sedaris relates a story which allows the reader to see an absolutely raw look into the mind of the author as a young boy. The chapter describes the family who lived next door to the Sedaris's, the Tomkeys. He recalls quotes from his own mouth in which he mercilessly pokes fun at his family's strange neighbors. He attributes many of their weirdness to the fact that Mr. Tomkey did not believe in television. Sedaris recognizes a common belief conditioned within the United States especially, that the social practices demonstrated on television are the only ones appropriate and that without television, one could not possible know how to properly act in public. In order to fully demonstrate how unreliable this childish narrator's claims actually are, Sedaris continues to implicate his young self as he describes his unwillingness to part with only a few pieces of his nearly vaulted Halloween candy in order to give some to the Tomkey family. Young Sedaris maintains his position until his mother forcefully confiscates some of candy as Sedaris was in the process of rating each piece by its specific value to him. He was about to pick out all of the worst pieces of candy from his bulging satchel to give to his neighbors, who had missed Halloween. In a supreme disply of tactlessness, Sedaris ridicules his neighbor's "dopey costume" as if he had never known that there was a problem at all. In the chapter, Sedaris waits until the last paragraph to allow his modern narrating voice to interject a judgemet, depicting his younger self as a glutonous pig, surrounded by trash on his bed. This mirrors the story telling stragegy that he says that his mother used on page 4. "The woman did not editorialize,"( Sedaris 4) he writes. The author Sedaris appears to have clear control over his witholding of editorial, the child Sedaris on the other hand, bleats out nearly every inappropriate thought that comes to mind.
All of these personal anecdotes provide material for the reader to connect to personally embarrassing moments from his or her past. These moments of unfiltered humanity cut to the core of humor and will never loose their comedic value until humans stop hording Halloween candy.

A new way in humor

For some reason not clear to m, I oddly enough found a connection to the first story for a lot of reasons. First of all, his commentary of the family is the classic and clichéd next door neighbors that no one on the block has any idea about, but everyone talks about. It reminded me immediately of a movie where the cliché is used, but I can’t think of the title. It involves something along the lines a comedy (obviously). The narrator is not like Tiko or Voltaire (come to think of it he and Voltaire are oil and water). He has great timing, but the delivery of his humor is not done throughout the book. I did laugh, but there was a subtleness to the jabs he makes.
Not only is this family the classic bunch of weirdoes that the author makes fun of, but he is stuck having to come in contact with them in an awkward situation. Again, typical case in these types of short stories. The candy part has nothing to do with the fact of the complete oddness that no one can get their head around (he admits including his mom). It is just the “they are plain weird” ideas. I’m not sure my mom would have even opened the door in the first place. It’s a case where the humor is used by the author himself to make the situation less bizarre for the reader. Any normal human being would have given them nothing (I use nor mal very loosely).
The candy is used as a device to create such a tense situation that the author even eats some as he’s deciding what to part with. This visual was hysterical, but it works great for humor. I know how that can be, not wanting to share (much less with people you think are weird). It’s the most agonizing thing ever.
The other story that again has this subtle humor that I liked was the End of the Affair. I think this is also a common situation whether you are with a lover or a friend. There is always some situation where your emotions run in opposite directions. I find it brilliant how the author gives his commentary on love at the end, thus leaving on serious note when his partner was so anguished over the two lovers in thee movie.
The humor of the eyes at the beginning was genius. He nails you with humor right away, much like all the other stories. I liked this style because you never know when the humor is going to pop up, and its so out of left field it makes it even better. I kind of liked how insensitive he was in. I’m not sure if this is just amazing writing, or how he is on a regular basis… Either way that in itself is what drives his style to be great, and unconventional. Unlike others we have read, you are not laughing the entire time. Instead he picks out specific things to use, and that are funny. This way is different, but it also works really well. Its fun to laugh, but I think his style is a little more creative, and modern to us (the book was written in 2004). This is why I liked it a lot more than any other novel we have read so far: you are surprised by the humor AND it is relatable to us. I think that is what makes him the most fun because we are not is removed that we cannot relate to the situation.

The Rightto be Left Alone

Reading the Second half of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim was very different than reading the first half of it. There is an important effect on how I reacted to Sedaris’ stories and his humor created by the closing of the gap in time between the events and the publication of the book. Sedaris writes many of these stories pretty much as they were happening, rather than decades later, and that makes a difference I think.
While I still find a lot of what he says interesting and funny, I think the “mean-ness” of what he writes about his siblings, especially that one visit to Lisa. I guess this disproves my theory of funny and mean being mutually exlusive, but though much of Sedaris’ humor is at the expense of Lisa, among other people, that isn’t really the type of mean-ness I am referring to. That mean-ness was present in the first half of the book as well, mitigated slightly by the fact that Sedaris was making funny of who people had been 30+ years ago rather than how they are right now, but still present.

What I’m talking about is the fact that as Sedaris’ writing and publishing of these books in somewhat real-time is to a point where it’s effecting the lives of his family members. What is also clear is that Sedaris is well aware of this fact. He mentions how his family members are afraid to tell him things, and precede everything they speak about with a disclaimer frequently forbidding him to repeat or write about it. Lisa’s reaction to the potential movie about their lives reveals that it’s not something she wants to deal with; she seems like she wants to be left alone. In my communications ethics class last semester we read the Right to Privacy by Brandeis, and he talks about the basic right that is entitled to all citizens of this country; “The right to be left alone.” Not that any of his siblings seem like they would take legal action to stop him from writing what he wants about them, but as someone who cares about them, and sees that a lot of times what he’s doing hurts them (to the point where he needs to imagine they are choosing to live the lives he imposes on them in order to sleep at night), doesn’t Sedaris owe them and the rights they are entitled to some kind of respect? Can’t he find something else to write about?
Sedaris says it was harder to tell his stories when a family member is in the audience, but when he writes a book aren’t all of them there? He just doesn’t need to face them. Sedaris is so aware of this effect, and it seems to really matter to him; but not enough to prevent him from writing what he does. He’s almost apologetic, and by acknowledging explicitly that he realizes that making his family’s lives “pieces of scrap” he can use to construct humorous essays in some ways wrong and unfair to them, it almost seems like he’s trying to rationalize what he does. By doing something, and then saying something to the extent of ‘It was wrong of me to do that,’ does it make it not as bad? After Sedaris talks about the reasons why he shouldn’t do what he does, he describes Lisa and her parrot “setting each other off” crying together all night long for weeks after their mother died. I laughed at this, because it was really funny. But I also underlined it and wrote “Lisa is a sad individual.” And I thought, Lisa shouldn’t have to be subjected to my judgment in moments of her weakness, one of her lowest points exposed to people all over the country. Part of me thought Sedaris should leave her alone.

Sweat the Pain Away

David Sedaris uses humor in various ways in his novel Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. His comedic wit is demonstrated throughout the novel, through his command of sarcasm, descriptions of ridiculous situations, as well as in his treatment of more serious and tragic subjects. I’m sure all of the philosophers we have read would have something to say about his sometimes malicious and rather unique use of humor, but I found myself entertained particularly by what Freud’s opinion of Sedaris would be, especially in terms of his personal method of releasing nervous energy, as demonstrated in the chapter entitled “Chicken in the Henhouse”.

Sedaris describes how his “conscience is cross-wired with [his] sweat glands,” and continues to explain in detail how he was dripping with sweat while helping a little boy carry coffee, perspiring with the fear he would be accused of being a homosexual pedophile (217). I couldn’t help but be reminded of Freud’s ideas of superfluous energy and the forms it emerges in. While many experience nervous laughter in an uncomfortable situation, Sedaris reveals the other possibilities, as he experiences nervous uncontrollable sweating, with the occasional bout of nervous head-touching.

For me this sparked an interest in what other nervous habits people may exhibit as a form of energy release, whether in a humorous or awkward situation. Clearly Sedaris’ reaction does not stem from amusement, although that is definitely what I got out of his story. I felt like perhaps the different forms of these knee jerk and uncontrollable releases speak to the personal experiences or inherent qualities of the individual. It is clear that Sedaris, who puts his life on display for others to judge and analyze, reveals painful moments of his life through humorous anecdotes. Maybe Freud would say the tendency to sweat reveals an inner insecurity that is lingering, or that the desire to touch someone’s head is an attempt to find something real to hold on to in the absurd and sometimes chaotic experiences of Sedaris’ life and childhood. Whatever the psychological reason may be behind Sedaris’ nervous perspiration problem, I think his whole memoir uses the idea of releasing something. Whether it be bad memories or leftover energy or something intangible, I imagine writing down his life with a humorous twist acted in a form of catharsis, as a channel of discharging something painful or even unconsciously repressed.

Laugh It Off

When Pat gave the definition of bildungsroman in class I thought, “Wow, why the hell is there a word for that.” My self automatically retorted, “Seriously? Why wouldn’t there be?” Self-identity and growth are even major themes of stories in which self-identity and growth are not major themes. That’s right.

Throughout Dress Your family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris approaches the awkward stages of self-searching and discovery in a way that many people do, through humor. Humor is a great way to deflect negative criticism. If you tell someone about an awkward, embarrassing, or foolish moment they’ll most likely stare at you, bewildered if you tell them about it with out any inkling of humor—or they’ll just laugh at you and you’ll simply be on the wrong end of a superiority complex.

Sedaris seems to be aware of this fact and the fact that we’ve all had embarrassing self-discovery-moments, and so the implication of his humor is that we are explicitly told, “It’s okay, laugh. We’ve all been here.” So, in effect, Sedaris makes us laugh at both his self-discovery and childhood mishaps, while we simultaneously make fun of our own.

Sedaris allows the reader to learn about an extraordinarily important matter (so important that when novels are written about it they have a specific name) and laugh at it. Truthfully, it is one of the oldest tricks in the book; being able to divert negative attention from something by laughing at its faults or absurdities (and, perhaps in this case, its universalities).

Sedaris makes the reader comfortable while he reads about things that are far from comforting. He does so through humor. This style of writing about self-discovery in a jocular tone is an extremely effective way to portray ideals important to the author without pressing them on the reader.

Comedy Conceals Confessions

David Sedaris uses a crafty variety of techniques to capture the reader’s interest in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. There are the obvious moments of hilarity, when he notes how he asks a cab driver questions he actually does not care about at all or when his sister tells him she will hide the key under the “Hour ott” (141). But then there are moments where the reader is unsure whether to laugh or cry. There are moments where an amusing, sarcastic comment is expected but a sad, reflective moment is revealed. These moments will quickly turn back to the funny ones, but the reader is left with a sense that all was not always entertainingly dysfunctional or absurdly amusing in Sedaris’s life. More importantly, the reader gets so comfortable with the writer that she begins to feel as if she knows him. This is not because of the embarrassing stories or in depth recounts of events in his life, but because of those moments where it is clear that there is a human aspect to this book that could be mistaken for fiction.

The chapter entitled “The End of the Affair” struck me in particular. It is a story about a time much later in his life than those he was previously relating, and it regards an event with him and his partner Hugh. The chapter is much shorter than any of the others and lacks even more humor than most of Sedaris’s touching moments. He and Hugh go see a movie, during which Hugh cries and Sedaris is bored. After the initial humor where Sedaris mocks his own boredom with the tragic love story, he reflects on why people go to see love stories and why they cry at them. He notes that perhaps it is because people wish that they could go back to those passionate beginnings and want to live vicariously through the characters. It is a truly revealing moment for Sedaris. He expresses his love for Hugh and opens up, almost shyly, about his feelings. He opens up only to the reader, not, in that moment, to Hugh. And though Sedaris himself acknowledged that not all of his stories were 100% accurate, I think we can safely assume that this one is. There is a sweetness that it would be almost cruel to question. I noticed that on the dedication page, David Sedaris wrote, “To Hugh.” This clarified the dedication for me. Perhaps it was something that could not sufficiently be expressed aloud, so Sedaris chose to bury it safely among humor. Perhaps that’s what all of his moments of pain and sadness do. They are apologies, reflections, or self-realizations that he can express almost like a public diary, and among the humor and embarrassing confessions, they are safe.

One-liners always leave me laughing

After reading more of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and hearing Sedaris read some of his other work in class on Tuesday, it seems to me that one of the most effective techniques Sedaris uses in his work is one we have not yet discussed: David Sedaris is a master of the one-liner.

One-liners get me every time. My love for sarcastic humor and puns make me particularly susceptible to their power. These carefully placed sentences, usually dead-pan in tone, come at the end or the middle of a story and typically offer an over- or under-exaggerated observation of what has taken place so far. The most effective one-liners, in my opinion, are those that come from the person in the corner who hasn't said anything throughout the conversation, but has been taking careful notes on the "characters" and "setting" involved, and at long-last releases their opinions in a perfectly timed and constructed sentence.

Things are a little different for Sedaris, who is the sole narrator for this written work. In the second half of his book, Sedaris uses one-liners to either deflate or detonate a joke (after working to build up to it), to completely change the subject (and therefore get a laugh), or to reveal something about himself and his opinions as a character who functions in the story. Ultimately, one-liners function in all these different ways to build Sedaris' unique voice as a narrator.

On page 145, Sedaris uses a one-liner to deflate a joke that he has been building up to. In talking about his sister's suburban house he ends with, "Step indoors and you automatically put on twenty years and a 401(k) plan." This sentence completely reverses the sentiments of the one before it, and that contrast makes the reader laugh. In it, Sedaris is also able to reveal to the reader his true feelings concerning his sister's house without coming out and saying, "The interior of her house was depressing/awful/drab." Showing, not telling, the reader how one feels is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a good writer.

Another one-liner that I found particularly funny is on page 157. After talking about normal icebreakers he uses to get people talking about their towns upon his arrival, Sedaris comes out and says, "What really interests me are the local gun laws." Unlike the sentence I cited in the paragraph above, this one-liner is funny because it is so direct. While it might be part of that precious 3% of dishonesty Sedaris claims to use in his writing, the quick change in subject matter again reveals something about the narrator: his sense of irreverence when it comes to meeting new people. In this instance, Sedaris uses a one-liner to be completely, shockingly open with his reader. While this is the opposite of the technique mentioned above, it is equally funny.

Another good example of a one-liner that shows, but doesn't tell, the reader something about Sedaris occurs in the story, "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post." Sedaris' father presents him with cigars upon the birth of Paul, to which Sedaris replies, "I hope you're not going to smoke that in here," I said. "Normally I wouldn't mind, but I just Scotchgarded the drapes" (165-166). In this instance, Sedaris puts words into his own mouth instead of offering internal commentary on what he describes going on around him. The perfectly-placed break in the quotation allows for the build-up of the joke, which reaches its climax in the second part of his line on the next page. Throughout his book, Sedaris uses both speech and internal commentary to poke fun of the members of his family. This particular one-liner is refreshing because he reveals to the reader that he can also make fun of himself.

All of these examples of one-liners work together to reveal something about Sedaris as both a person and a narrator. They contribute to his unique sense of voice, which in turn adds to the humor of this piece.

Just keep laughing

In class we discussed the impact of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim being non-fiction. Personally I find non-fiction to be a richer and more valid form of literature than anything else. Blame it on my inability to take people at their word, but I feel as though as a reader I can learn more, or have more of an experience relating to a story that has more truth in it than fabrication. Sedaris’ humor seems to be personally targeting himself which has made me as the reader increasingly more uncomfortable as I read more so than if I, or some cultural/social/economic group I am connected to, had been the focus of his jokes. Having made me uncomfortable I can only laugh at the fact that Sedaris has turned my horror and sympathy I feel for him into nothing but worthless chuckles. Descartes had said that the act of laughing naturally leads to sadness, but perhaps it can work the other way as well. After reading Descartes’ theory on laughter I had reached the question of what happens when the laughter stops? I get the feeling that Sedaris hopes to never find out.

In “Put a Lid on It” Sedaris writes, “I can’t seem to fathom that the things important to me are not important to other people as well, and so I come off sounding like a missionary, someone whose job it is to convert rather than listen.” (Sedaris, 203) This rather personal confession gives the reader insight into the role of the joker. The joker runs the risk of coming off as a converter rather than an observant listener every time he/she begins to make their joke. Following this statement he pokes fun at his sister Tiffany saying, “I just worry that, without a regular job and the proper linoleum, she’ll fall through a crack and disappear to a place where we can’t find her.” (Sedaris, 203) Some readers may skim through this paragraph and chuckle at the uptight obsessive compulsive that is Tiffany, while others like myself find in it the fear that Sedaris is trying to repress.

The core of Sedaris’ humor is not rooted in the hilarious awkward moments that seem to be the main focus of each individual essay but rather in the incredible sadness and pain he attempts to gloss over with wit. I find that the non-fiction-“ness” of this book is the reason that his humor is so successful. If this novel had been fiction it would be easier to brush off the absurdities and uncomfortable moments as false, loosing the humor in translation. Having the novel be painfully accurate (albeit “3%” exaggerated) depictions of David Sedaris’ life forces the reader to deal with these issues along with the author.

I find this tool a sort of scape-goating tactic, rather than deal with the uncomfortable reality that these stories present for Sedaris, he sugarcoats them with humor and makes the reader deal with consequences while he escapes. Through this he creates a relationship between author and reader where both have experienced the same thing and therefore have both earned to laugh it off.

The search for self-identity

In class on tuesday, we talked about the universal nature of Sedaris's Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and the themes that make it so universal and relatable. I think one of these themes that Sedaris touches on frequently is the idea of identity. Everyone, at some point in their life, struggles to define themselves and to form a strong sense of self-identity. Throughout the book, Sedaris and some of the other members of his family deal with these issues and are able to define themselves in certain ways in the process.
As the narrator, Sedaris's own struggle with self-identity is the most prominent throughout the book. One of the first times where the idea of self-identity appears is when Sedaris talks about the social hierarchy within his middle school. As in virtually every school, there is a group of popular kids that seem to stand apart from, and are looked up to by, the rest of the school population. Sedaris and his sisters aren't a part of this group but are in awe of its members. David automatically classifies himself based upon his relation to this group. Even though he realizes he is not that much different from any of the members, he believes that he is lacking some special quality that is only acquired upon admission to the group: "It didn't matter what you were like on your own. The group would make you special". Looking back upon his time in school, though, Sedaris questions his readiness to define himself through comparison with the popular kids: "What if I'd wasted my entire life comparing myself with people who didn't really matter?"
Another time when Sedaris searches for a way to define himself is when he tries to become a hippie. He does this by asking for money just like the hippies in order to buy a suede vest and hip-huggers. His efforts ultimately fall through, though, when the hippie girl he tries to impress calls him a poser.
Sedaris isn't the only one in his family that searches for different ways to define himself. In the chapter, The Ship Shape, when Sedaris and his mom are in the laundromat, they overhear a wealthy woman describing her many homes. After they leave, he and his mom practice saying "My home -well, one of my homes". His mom tells Sedaris that that will be them someday - they will be people who own more than one home.
Sedari's struggle with self-identity as he grows up is something that happens to everyone at some point during their life. Also, as illustrated by his mom, the search for self-definition is a life-long one. Because of this, I think, as well as many other aspects of the book, Sedaris is able to connect with the reader on a personal level.

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.

Solidarity by Means of Masturbation?

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.

Understanding Love, according to Sedaris

When reading David Sedaris’ book “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, we wonder, just as we do with any book, the truth behind the writing. And as individual readers, we decide if the power of the story lies in the validity of its depictions, if this matters at all, and thus learn from the images that the author portrays; truths or not. On page 147, we see the first assertion that Sedaris makes about the truths in his novel. In the section entitled, “Repeat After Me”, he has returned to his sister Lisa’s house for a visit. And while there, we see the tension of their relationship because of his job as a journalist. Lisa fears that anything she tells David will be repeated and published in the media. David is acutely aware of this and thus says:
“In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from little pieces of scrap that I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap so I casually pick up, and they’re sick of it.” (Sedaris, 147)
In this important paragraph, we can’t help but wonder how much of Sedaris’ tale is actually true. The comedy in his literature lies in the complexity of the characters and the way that we relate to them as people with similar situations. When reading this book, we laugh, and in our laughter, we find ourselves reminiscent also of the reliability of the work as it pertains to our lives. The relationships between characters are memorable of our own relationships.
I am moved here to consider the common phrase that people utter (and Sedaris implies) under several different circumstances, ranging from different situations and stemming from different character interactions. When we say, “it wasn’t funny then, but its funny now” or “I didn’t think it was funny when it happened, but looking back I think its quite hilarious!” These example of things that we often say show us that humor is entirely situational. Something extremely serious can later be extremely funny and I wonder, how does this work? Perhaps the consequences of a serious situation dictate whether humor is not only acceptable, but necessary. Sedaris, I believe plays into our understanding of humor by portraying situations that are perhaps not funny when they are occurring (in actuality they are ridiculous, hurtful, embarrassing, scary etc) but we can laugh about them now, just as Sedaris can. Sedaris holds the key to permitting our laughter. He understands that we must be allowed to laugh, and in writing this book he gives us this permission. We often relate to what Sedaris is saying, and perhaps our own similar situations were not funny at the time, but we can laugh about it now.
Sedaris’ book is a play on our understandings of our past and the situations we find ourselves in. Laughter functions to defuse, it functions to help us understand, and it helps us to forgive and love. It helps us to recognize that our situations are similar to others, and that we are connected by the same emotions of frustration, embarrassment. Further, from these emotions we understand that laughter is a way to not only forgive those who have embarrassed us in the past, but love them all the more for it.

the well-timed pause

David Sedaris’ chapter titled, “Repeat After Me,” discussed the form of story telling. Even more specifically, he touched on the importance of pauses just as Mark Twain does in “How To Tell A Story.” Sedaris writes, “Details were carefully chosen and the pace built gradually, punctuated by a series of well-timed pauses,” (154). Twain agrees wholeheartedly that stories are the funniest when the delivery is just right. Twain discusses different features of the art of story telling humor and he includes the pause. He states, “The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous, for it must be exactly the right length- no more and no less- or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble,” (19). This is exactly what Sedaris touches on when he hears his sister’s story and he goes even further with the idea of delivery but wanting to craft his family’s stories into funny episodes. He tells his sister, “The story’s really funny, and, I mean, it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it,” (155). This is a prime example of how Sedaris as a writer, crafts the structure of the sharing in order to convey the best reading.

Also, the “well-timed pauses,” made an impact when our class listened to Sedaris read an excerpt from his book. The pauses allowed for the contrast between humor and pain to be heightened. In listening to the reading, the delivery of the pauses actually stopped the laughter because the pain became highlighted. It was not as easy to brush over the pain as it is when reading from the text. The pauses in the text may get lost in between the humorous remarks. I’m able to read from one funny episode to the next and not dwell on the actual hurt Sedaris feels. By the time it would sink in, I’m already halfway through his next episode. In listening to the reading, there is no escaping the brief silence where Sedaris is vulnerable to the readers and the laughter stops to feel the sting.

The well-timed pause works to heighten the humor or the hurt. It is effective in either way.

Bread, Circuses, and Tragedy?

“Catch your flies with honey,” is the very tactic Dave Sedaris uses to hook readers to his collection of essays about his early years and his family, but something that cliché leaves out is the administration of the vinegar after the flies are captured. The second half of Sedaris’ memoir is still rich with his particular brand of dry and oftentimes dark humor yet seems to strike a more serious nerve in the reader.
The most poignant example comes at the end of the chapter titled “Repeat After Me.” At first the title seems to indicate the parrot who can only repeat the common phrases of its owner; however, at the end it is implied that Dave tries to teach the parrot to repeat “Forgive me.” This is given more weight as it follows Dave’s thoughts on the upcoming movie which as it turns out was cancelled by himself precisely for the worries he voices towards the end of the chapter. Each page still contains humorous moments, such as when he tries to write down his sister’s story about a wounded animal and a pillowcase out of habit. Even so, the interactions between the Sedaris family begin to take on that deeper sense of care, and the love that might have seemed more frivolous in the beginning is no longer taken for granted.
The final straw comes with the chapter titled “Baby Einstein.” Dave’s description of his brother Paul, who went largely unmentioned throughout the book, now takes the spotlight in all his crude and foulmouthed glory, and despite all the joking and blunt portrayals of Paul’s slobbish behavior the last section brings water to my eyes at the idea that a daughter might remember all the times her father stayed up all night to care for her. The following chapter ends the novel nicely on a similar note to Candide, almost too similarly: Dave’s final words are those of a man content with his dwelling place because it is his and pleasing to him, regardless of what someone else might think.

Sedaris on Santa

While I found much of what David Sedaris had to say at once poignant and laugh out loud funny, the chapter “Six to Eight Black Men” also struck me as extremely interesting in subject matter and presentation. It said wonders about his ability to universalize the essay, as well as hold firmly onto his own definitive voice and experience. He led smoothly from general regional oddities in the US, to the oddities that he found in Europe with the common thread of unusual questions he thinks to ask the residents. The question that he got a kick of out of asking across the Atlantic? None other than an inquiry into their Christmas traditions of course. While not all Americans are guaranteed to celebrate Christmas, and certainly not all in the same way, you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what it is or the traditions associated with it.

This seemingly simple flow of thought is essential to how the essay works. First he starts with the oddities that we can find throughout our own familiar country – the blind can hunt? While this allows a great deal of ammunition for Dick Cheney jokes, it is also extremely important in tying the essay back to the reader. Something so counter-intuitive being present amongst us all allows us to share that silly history with the author, and also includes us as a lighthearted target in the joke. This then allows us to laugh when we experience the strangeness of the “other” cities – Santa is a skinny ex-bishop who kicks and kidnaps children with his band of slaves? We laugh because to us it seems so ridiculous, but we also feel we can laugh because we have our own ridiculous laws and ideas to compare it to. This leaves room not only for interest in something that seems hilariously inappropriate to our normal concept of a jolly and pleasant holiday, but it also gives room for thought on just how strange we might seem to these “strange” countries.

He makes this point evident with his signature dry lines such as, “It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value” in response to certain Christmas traditions where presents aren’t the focal point of the day (159). Simple comments like this are essential glue to the essay because they do much the same as the general format. This offers up a multi-directional laugh because it makes an apparent joke about the strange difference of other cultures’ traditions, but also more significantly a joke about our American preoccupation with material things. What we see as an obvious point of Christmas looks so shallow and vapid in contrast with the other traditions that we see as strange. Yet, it doesn’t come off as an accusation because he presents it with an honest selfishness that says he too partakes in this tradition, even though he recognizes the lack of real values within it. This complete circle of introducing with the joke on us, then leading into the joke on others then returning with the joke on us allows a full circle of appreciation and surprise at things we thought we were very familiar with.

Funny vs. Family

“I instinctively reached for the notebook I keep in my pocket and she grabbed my hand to stop me. ‘If you ever,’ she said, ‘ever repeat that story. I will never talk to you again.’

In the movie version of our lives, I would have turned to offer he comfort, reminding her, convincing her that the action she’d just described had been kind and just...In the real version of our lives my immediate goal was simply to change her mind... ‘Oh, come on,’ I said. ‘The story’s really funny, and, I mean, it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it.’

Your life, your privacy, your occasional sorry—it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it. Is this the brother I always was, or the brother I have become?”

(Sedaris 155)

In class, we’ve discussed how, when reading Sedaris, you can go from amusement and laughter on one page, to serious contemplation on another. This moment, for me, was one of the times when I was really moved by the poignancy of the pain and conflict in the author’s life. He is making a living by sharing embarrassing (and often painful) stories about his family. Yes, he writes embarrassing stories about himself as well, but that’s something he does not have to ask permission to do. Reading this part of the story made me realize that members of his family probably hate seeing their stories on the Bestseller list. We started to touch on this topic in discussion and we seemed to be trying to reconcile this truth for Sedaris. This passage is both disturbing and comforting for me. The fact that the author is perfectly aware of what he’s doing, and that he is truly conflicted by it, is somehow reassuring: “Is this the brother I always was, or the brother I have become?” We have talked at length about how humor and what we joke about and laugh at can teach us a lot about ourselves, our roles, and our society, and I think this is what is happening for Sedaris, here. Through writing, he’s realizing that he has outgrown the “certain roles” his parents had assigned him, and that’s he’s done so partly at his family’s expense (143). It’s almost as if, as he looks back on his experiences, writes about them, jokes about them, and reflects, Sedaris is able to identify the boundaries between his career and his family. Where is the line? What is okay to share? The fact that he does not write out the entire story that Lisa implores him not to share really says a lot. He seems to be developing a way to continue his hilarious work while maintaining a respect for some sacred aspects of his family life. We learned during Tuesday’s presentation that he decided not to turn his book into a movie, and I think that’s pretty significant.

There was a question on Tuesday about what aspects of Sedaris’s life are unique, and what are universal. I know this is a memoir so it is by nature unique to its writer. No one else lived this exact same life (or the 97% that is true). But I think a lot of people have lived parts of this life, and that’s why it can be both so funny and so painful. That’s also why I think it is acceptable for him to write about it. He’s writing stories about his family, but he’s writing stories that countless others can relate to as well. This is also why I don’t think it matters if the book is considered fiction or nonfiction. What fiction is somehow not based on some kind of universal theme or human experience? Even the more fantastical piece of fiction has some kind of human connection, or we would not want to read it. Whether or not these events happened, we can relate to them. They make us laugh, cry, think, and learn about ourselves.

Dressing Us in Corduroy and Denim

As victimized and made fun of as Sedaris’ family members may be in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris reveals in his humor and writing that one’s kith and kin are lifesavers in the turbulent ocean that is the human experience (excuse the cheesy, overdramatic metaphor). In that sense, the structure of the family ultimately comes to mirror the structure and function of humor itself. Namely, that both humor and a sense of family and community can save and rescue us from embarrassment and steely, unyielding seriousness. Therefore, it’s not a surprise, really, that Sedaris chooses to pair the two together in his book of essays.

As was discussed in class, humor has the ability to simultaneously deflect and shed light on that which may cause discomfort, whether it be a global issue such as human suffering, or the fact that some siblings can be nutcases. In “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post,” Sedaris comically characterizes his brother Paul by illustrating him as the sort of man who will (and did) eat “‘fish-assed-tasting chicken’” (168) in his underpants in the middle of the night, which is funny because one never expects (or desires) a sibling who is that quirky. However, in the same chapter, Sedaris reminds us that he, too, is part of the family, and as such, he isn’t exempt from being foolishly portrayed. Just before the incident with the snack of off-tasting chicken wings, Sedaris describes how Paul put a sticker on his back that said “Hello, I’m Gay” right after their mother’s funeral. The humor, then, is multidirectional within the family circle. I imagine this sort of humor as similar to the motto of “Once a [insert family surname here], always a [re-insert family surname here],” in that once you become part of a family, it isn’t easy to fall out of a family. There is a bond that is formed that is difficult to sever, and humor can create that sort of tightness, that filial sort of bond in a group by having multiple targets. It’s just as what Kay was talking about in class, how insulting her friends, how directing humor at them and allowing them to fire jokes back at her, strengthen their friendships.

In contrast, Sedaris also presents chapters or situations in which he is outside the family circle, such as in “Blood Work” and “Nuit of the Living Dead.” In these respective parts of the book, Sedaris is on his own and the humor employed in these parts is extremely different from the kind used in chapters like “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post” and “Repeat After Me” where Sedaris recalls certain moments shared with one other sibling. When Sedaris is apart from his family, when he is alone, the humor he employs has very few directions to go in. The joke is ultimately turned toward the self, and the self becomes the source and target of ridicule. This type of humor reminded me a lot of LaMott’s in “Ham of God” because the focal character was the self, and there was not a brother, sister or parent around to jab in the ribs.

To go along with that, “Blood Work” and “Nuit of the Living Dead” were also some of the most uncomfortable chapters for me to read in Sedaris’ book. Whereas Sedaris used humor previously to show how insane and vulgar his brother is or how pet-oriented his sister is, the truth revealed in the humor of the aforementioned chapters was so bare and blunt that it was making me itch for a censor. The shame Sedaris unveils in “Blood Work” (aside from the chapter’s overall crudeness) was too palpable, too frighteningly real and honest, and similar things can be said about “Nuit of the Living Dead” and, perhaps, all instances in which Sedaris recalls times when he was out of his family circle (his getting beat up at a carnival for pretending to be a hippie, for example). While Sedaris confessing that he thinks about zombies when he’s alone in the house overnight is funny because it seems so irrational, it calls us to question why he would feel such an intense fear when he is alone—something, I feel, would have not been as noticeable had Hugh or family member been with him. Likewise, had Sedaris been with family during the incident in “Blood Work,” perhaps he wouldn’t have reflected that “Martin’s efforts broadcast germs, a debilitating shame bug that traveled across the room in search of a new host” (133). These are the moments, I believe, in which Sedaris is at his most vulnerable. His discomfort is noticeable, and so because he has no other family member with him, because he is outside of his family circle, the discomfort radiates outward to us, the readers; and I don’t know about you, but during those times in the book, I, too, was wishing that I had someone to joke with, someone to dissipate the uneasiness I strangely managed to sense.

Family and humor, then, can go hand-in-hand. The structure of the family mirrors the structure of a multi-directional humorous situation, in which we are all connected because we are all targets. Just as families try their best to make you never forget that you are a part of them, multidirectional humor works in the same way. It makes you never forget that you, too, are part of the joke; and that, incidentally, you are privileged with the comfort that you belong to a community (no matter how small), and that that sense of camaraderie and security is ultimately born of laughter.

"You can't believe everything you see on T.V."

While reading David Sedaris' Dress Your Family in Courderoy and Denim, I couldn't help but notice he recurrently alluding to T.V. and his family's obsession with it. I had a feeling that after reading about it two or three times, that it would be a contributing factor to the book and come up many more times. So when we mentioned the significance of the T.V. at the end of class on Tuesday, I couldn't help but use it as a contributing factor in my Blog.
Throughout Sederis' memoir, he tells story after story from his life, ranging from when he was a little boy to a teenager to an adult. Most of his stories are outrageously blunt and painfully funny. At times, I didn't know whether to cry for him or to laugh. Based on what I read and what we talked about in class, I would say that laughing is the best reaction to these embarressing and heartwrenching stories. Why? Because Sedaris would not put himself out there if he didn't want to accept other people laughing at his misfortunes. He doesn't want sympathy, because if he did, he wouldn't shine his stories in a humorous light. He wouldn't put in ridiculous jokes and crazy one-liners if he didn't want you to laugh!
This brings me to my next point. As we said in class and as I stated earlier, Sedaris alludes to his family's reliance on the T.V. throughout the entire book. From the very beginning we see that his family engulfed themselves in the television all hours of the day, and even made fun of their neighbors who didn't have a T.V. At one point, he even describes his family as, "The family whose T.V. was so hot that we needed an oven mitt in order to change the channel" (31). Describing his family's obsession with the T.V. is a way of telling us what not to do. We all have heard of the phrase "You can't believe everything you see on T.V." Well this can be a message Sedaris is trying to get across. Too often we become distracted by what the media is telling us through the T.V., the internet, etc when in reality, we need only to focus on the real life situations we are in. It is within our real life situations that we will learn what we need to know, not from the images we get from the T.V. By pointing out every instance where his family depended on the T.V. we see that in doing so, we will miss out on more important things. If we are distracted, we will not be able to appreciate the moments that define our lives better than any newscast or reality series. The part in the book that made me aware of this was when David's brother, Paul, was getting married. It is Paul's wedding day, and all he and his father could do was watch the news on a flood that was occurring somewhere in the world. Rather than even being concerned about the people that were being affected and the possible lives being lost, Paul says, "Water like that will fuck the shit out of some hardwood floors.." This is a prime example of the statement we began making in class on how we cannot become distracted based on what we see on T.V. For Paul and his father, and David too, their obsession led them to lose one of the most exciting times they will ever has and brothers, fathers, and sons. If I had to speak for David Sedaris, I would think that he would tell us that we create meaning in our life, not the media and not those who bring us down, like Brandi in the Girl Next Door chapter. We have control over what we pay attention to and what makes us happy. As friends, spouses, parents, siblings, we need to keep our attention focused on those we love and those who love us, as well as ourselves.

“A Poor Typist Stuck in the Middle”

David Sedaris may be a hard author to categorize on bookstore shelves, but no matter what percentage of his works are non-fiction and others exaggeration; he is ultimately writing about the truth of the world, of his life, and of his family, as he sees it. Who are we to try to compartmentalize his perspective? Furthermore, I would like to see his works as a triumph not only of modern humor but also of voice. I am not sure if there are any other contemporary writers that I have read recently who have such a distinct voice as Sedaris deftly exhibits page after page. We are not only welcome to take a look at his life through a fishbowl, but we are also seeing everything difinitively through his eyes.

This fact can be a great revelatory experience for the reader, but a little more problematic for the people who serve as the subject matter in the book. When you consider just how intimately we get to know his family, you can’t but help to think about how exposed those around him are in his works. He writes, “In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people I love expressly choose to expose themselves. Amy breaks up with a boyfriend and sends out a press release. Paul regularly discusses his bowel movements on daytime talks shows. I’m not the conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle. It’s a delusion much harder to maintain when a family member is actually in the audience” (Sedaris, 150).

In class we started to explore non-fiction as opposed to fiction. I think that with fiction there is less of a risk for the writer because he doesn’t have to explain his writing to the characters. Sedaris, however, has to face his family and the consequences of revealing their darkest secrets to millions of eager readers.

In this book we learn of alcholism, unhappy marriages, and the condition of the run-down apartment of his youngest sister Tiffany. Sedaris is certainly a part of his family but his writing forces him to occupy a strange space of both an insider with all of the information to share, as well as an outsider who must edit and fasten his family’s history into a packaged product for us to read. There is certainly a question of ownership in this work that is up for debate. Should we be let in on the secret or are we the uninvited guest at the family reunion?

Humor v Pain

            Throughout the semester we have discussed several different aspects of humor.  Among the different purposes for humor is catharsis or, using humor as a release.  David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is a prime example of humor being used for relief.

            The memoirs Sedaris writes are hilarious, moments are described in a way that not only make him a relatable and sympathetic character but also put the situation right in your face.  It is impossible not to encounter laugh out loud moments when reading this book; especially when you read about an adolescent boy manipulating his peers into getting completely naked during a game of poker.  Sedaris’ use of sarcasm and honesty combine to put the reader in a position where they feel involved in the moment, as if they were helping Sedaris and his mother move out of his apartment and away from the psycho mother/ daughter pair who lived next door.

            Although the memoirs are filled with hysterical moments there are equally as many sad moments.  Often the things don’t appear to be sad; rather they appear to be funny, especially because the event is obviously written about in hindsight.  I found myself feeling bad laughing at moments that seemed to be written with the intent to be laughed at; for example, when Sedaris has no idea he has been kicked out of his parent’s house because he is gay or upon visiting his sister Lisa when he explains the expected roles the children were to take on.  Although masked in a funny tone it pulled at the heart strings when Sedaris wrote that he “has been branded lazy and irresponsible so it was right when he dropped out of college and wound up living in his parents basement”.  Typically, the role of one’s parents is to support them in a manner that no one else could provide.  The fact that Sedaris and his siblings were essentially robbed of this is depressing and one can’t help to sympathize with them. 

            Sedaris has clearly become a phenomenon and his stories are extremely entertaining.  If a reader is only looking to the surface every event written about will be hilariously entertaining; however, if one reads deeper into the situation it will become obvious that Sedaris’ writings are a release for the pain he feels/felt about his family life as well as his unwelcomed sexual orientation.  This is not to say that we are not meant to find humor in the text, quite the contrary, it is obvious that Sedaris’ writings are meant to be a release for solely him.  

From Cover to Close

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I ordered Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris from the ever so trusty When I opened the package, and faced the shamelessly exposed pre-anorexia Barbie, I knew I was in for an adventure. Sure enough, Mr. Sedaris pummeled me with his sardonic wit and blunt descriptions. From mocking the Baptists to incessantly infringing personal bubbles, Sedaris had me laughing, sighing, cringing, and rolling my eyes at his audacious narrative. From meeting characters from Brandi to Martin, I was able to pass judgment on a colorful array of personalities and for some reason, finding myself siding with the narrator.

We all have dysfunctional families, or pristine parents that succumb to a bout of chaos at the most inconvenient times. Although we have the mother who drinks and kicks children into the snowbank, she rises as her son's savior when fighting the gruesome beast named Brandi. Her personality is like a bird's nest, which makes her human. She does things that the audience wouldn't have expected, from crying when David moves out to predicting that Amy will own a monkey instead of a child, she strikes me as a woman who is just as confused about life as we are. However, she appears to be the character most likely to figure it out first.

I found the book weird, though. Although the characters were just as aggravating as a fanatic coworker, Mr. Sedaris creates a tangible world that the audience could readily integrate. There is nothing fake or embellished about this book, unlike other memoirs that are chock full of sympathy pitches and over exaggerated situations. Although the ending starts out smoothly, the narrative soon turns rough as the narrator is slowly disillusioned about the world surrounding him. By the end, we are as jaded as he is, but are left with a spout of optimism and a craving to crack open his next installment. In short, the naked Barbie on the cover was quite foretelling. David fully laid himself on the table and allowed us an intimate glimpse into his exposed mind, and didn't have a single qualm about the invasion of privacy.

Bellboy is Better than Pedophile

David Sedaris ends Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, with a story about an encounter with a group of elderly tourists in the early morning. The group of Dutch tourist were lost in Sedaris’ French village, and looking for another obscure village a few miles away. When Sedaris invites one into his home to find a map, he notices many out-of-ordinary items scattered throughout his house that may make the visitor perceive him as a mad scientist or mass murderer. He decides the next day he will plant some hydrangeas to put on his table, claiming they will be “pleasing to the eye.”

At first I felt jipped; I didn’t think this was a sufficient ending for such a great book. But after rereading the last page about five times I realized that this image of planting flowers, in a bucket used to kill a mouse, symbolized rebirth and rejuvenation. It paralleled his childhood, and younger years. The entire book focuses on the turmoil associated with accepting and becoming who you know you are. Often time the surface layer of a person is the only layer that people see. Getting one’s outside appearance to keep consistency with one’s inner being is not easy. With David’s last chapter he points out that this is a constant process. People will constantly perceive you for who you are not, one’s goal should be to constantly reflect on their life, and make the necessary changes, i.e. planting flowers.

The entire second half of the book focuses on David’s life as an adult. The themes of his final chapters are much broader then the first half of the book. Through a series of humorous revelations, we discover what means the most to him in his life. Paralleled to the stories of his struggling youth and his family, there is a different tone. He now really appreciates what he has, and also knows why he is appreciative.

In “Chicken in the Henhouse,” Sedaris finds himself helping a young boy bring coffee up to his parent’s hotel room. He is nervous that the parent’s will peg him as a child pedophile. His paranoia had him ready for “the fight of [his] life,” but instead of fighting the parents thanked him and tipped him a dollar. Although Sedaris didn’t necessarily want to be perceived as bellboy, it was still better then a child molester. He is not a monster and people don’t view him as one either.

After the first half of the book that contained some very depressing under-tones, the second half left me feeling very warm. This parallel forces you to revisit every chapter’s theme. Sedaris’ build-up to his final point is very intelligent. The meaning behind every joke is subtle, and yet so powerful. The ending is very optimistic, and that combined with the laugh-out-loud scenarios presented makes for a very enjoyable read. Besides pleasure, the book also gives you window into Sedaris’ life, which make you reflect on certain windows of your own life and discover their meaning.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

the stories in a story

When I finished reading this novel, I quickly realized that I could not really find any aspect of the work that I did not enjoy with respect to both form and content. Specifically, Sedaris’ decision to write individual stories rather than attempting to pen a traditional novel about his life experiences made this work very successful. His stories are in no particular order in relation to continuity or plot progression, but present various memories (whether partially distorted/biased or not) of Sedaris’ life. I think that this is very much how many of us think when we consider our lives. Memory does not work in a rigid, linear fashion. Though we are sure to have a sense of time as well as an awareness as to the proper placement of specific events which occurred in our lives, we tend to return to particular moments because they resonate with something that is in our present. Essentially, there are many stories which make up one’s larger story, and even though they may be considered history, they are always working in the present moment.

Sedaris’ novel seems to get at the selective nature often found in memory; however, he does not censor or dull down his stories. They are very vivid and honest. But given that this work is two hundred something pages, we also have to recognize that there was certainly some decisions to be made regarding which specific memories Sedaris would incorporate in the novel. Why is this particular story in here? (Because there is no doubting the rich history he has to choose from).

I think that the individualized stories create a larger conversation throughout the work which we began to identify in class, namely, that the specifics in one’s life has meaning and speaks to something larger than the isolated incident (because there really are no isolated incidents in one’s life when you think about it). Rather than putting together a more traditional, linear novel, Sedaris’ stories complement one another. If too many detailed memories are received all at once, a reader may easily become overwhelmed and miss out on the purpose behind an author’s decision to specifically recall the particular memory he or she is sharing. The decision to break up a work into stories such as the ones found in this novel allow for more contained, yet intense moments of impact and contact between the reader and the work overall. Furthermore, Sedaris’ use of voice as well as the manner in which he tells his stories seems to catch readers off guard; his humor is at once very funny and entertaining, but able to almost immediately elicit quite the opposite effect.

Sedaris on Sedaris.

Today in class Matt S. made a point that I had been thinking about while reading Sedaris’ book (thanks for totally stealing my thunder, jerk). But anyway, it was about how Sedaris tells these hilarious anecdotes about his life but makes sure to make a point at the end. In particular the example that stood out to me was in the section about Aunt Monie when Sedaris inherited the bearskin rug that got passed on to his sister and then later to a friend who died in a car accident. Although this detail seems meaningless he asks himself what the parents must of thought when they found they rug: who had owned it before? And, what did it mean to them? I feel like a lot of Sedaris’ hilarity comes from his ability to look back at his life with an unattached view, he is blunt about his family members and himself and is sure to make an interesting point by imagining what an outsider must think. I think this makes a lot of his crazy stories relatable and causes the reader to think about how they view others. Similarly to the bearskin rug, when Sedaris gets kicked out of his house his mother sobs, sad that her son has been forced out of his home because he is gay. Sedaris takes this opportunity to wonder what people driving by may of thought, thus further distancing himself and relating to the reader.

I think that this distancing method makes a lot of what Sedaris writes very funny, but it also makes his character humorous as well. Sedaris the writer can look back at his childhood and bluntly point out flaws or recall humiliating stories with a lack of emotion. Although this makes his writing style funny, talking about himself makes it even better. Sedaris the character also lacks emotion and is distant from many people. As a child, he does not feel welcome by the overfriendly family in the Full House section and when his dad kicks him out, he is completely unaware that it is because he is gay. Although I love Sedaris for his blunt commentary and ability to remove himself while talking about his own life, I find that what makes everything even more hilarious is his ability to do this in the moment as well.

Sarcasm as the Food of Love

David Sedaris has an uncanny knack for making the mundane trivialities of everyday interactions completely hilarious.  His secret weapon—the one that works best on me, anyway—is the all-access pass into his thought process this narrative provides. Sedaris’s obsessive-compulsive behavioral quirks are delightfully strange, but his overactive imagination is what catapults him over the bounds of normalcy. The way he presents his snap judgments about people make them seem as natural as breathing—which they are.  As critical social beings, judging others is something we do instinctively.  Sedaris is set apart by his willingness to fully illuminate what takes place inside his head; he allows us to feel every electric pulse of appraisal or vindictive spite within.  The more shameful thoughts—like his staunch resistance to relinquish any of his “hard-earned” Halloween candy to the Tomkeys, even the chocolate pieces that made him ill—are presented in a clearly self-deprecating light. Sedaris is generally unapologetic, but why should he have to apologize for his thoughts? He uses exaggeration to inherently acknowledge his own ridiculousness, allowing us to laugh at it more comfortably.

Despite the unremitting stream of glib sarcasm spiking the narrative, Sedaris manages to convey the genuine care he feels for members of his immediate family and his partner, Hugh. It is interesting that the device of sarcasm, so often used as a defense mechanism and distancing technique in life, manages to solidify closeness. In class discussion, several people agreed on the point that the closer someone is to someone else, the more specific and humorous that person’s ‘zings’ against him will be.  Sedaris presents his loved ones’ odious quirks in shameless detail and yet somehow manages to make traits like his father’s stubborn penny-pinching and his brother’s Hicksville gutter mouth seem charming.  The feelings of irritation he conveys add striking realism to the anecdotes—after all, who can get under your skin better than family?

The conversation David has with his oldest sister when she calls him out on pimping his family’s personal lives to the reading public was a poignant moment for me.  Although his presentation conveyed his own closeness with his satirical subjects, I remained comfortably distant from them, blithely assuming their complicity in the writing process. When Lisa calls him out, it gets real. For the first time, we see that even Sedaris himself may not be altogether comfortable with his subject matter. But close sardonic narrative may well be the conduit through which he is able to express his love most fully—as counter-intuitive a means as it may be. 

“I’m still the one most likely to set your house on fire”

David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim demonstrates a spin on humor found within the family. Sedaris has this quality about him, where he is the silent observe. This characteristic makes me picture him at the scene just sitting back and soaking it all in, making me see him as a sort of scientist/ psychoanalyst. As he lives his life, he not only provides detailed events, but he adds this humor based reflection/analysis of the individuals. This quality really makes his humor rich and filled with quick jabs at different conventions, stereotypes within the family and even him.

On particular part of the novel that I found funny was his take on a sort of hierarchy within the family and the role of each member. For example, “If the oldest wasn’t who she was supposed to be, then what did it mean for the rest of us?” (144). By making light of his sister’s indecision and confusion within life, he proposes a more serious question. By evaluating the structure and function within the family, you can really begin to understand why you are the way you are. I never noticed this before entering college and meeting people with a very different attitude and personality then mine, but after meaning their family everything usually falls into place. Our families shape who we are and who we become.

These family based jokes and stereotypes are based around what we expect from each member. The norms and expectations within the family seem to be permanent and making specific events more humorous if happening to a family member who you would least expect it to happen to. For example, my older sister’s car got stolen this past year (she actually got it back a month later, but that’s beside the point). Out of my three sisters she has always been the one to take the most pride in her possessions, and would require me and my other sisters to ask for permission to even touch her dolls. So when she got a car for her 17th birthday we new her car would always be in the best condition. When hearing about my sister’s car being stolen my twin called me asap. I know this sounds mean, but we all found it ironic and hysterical (my dad didn’t think this was funny). So my point being, humor within the family is sort of exclusive and unique to each member.

The humor found within this concept, are the stereotypes and quarks within each family. For example when Sedaris mentions that “I might reinvent myself to strangers, but to this day, as far as my family is concerned, I’m still the one most likely to set your house on fire” (144) he gets down to the idea that families always have those funny stories that you probably have heard a million times, and even if it was only one time, that situation or event has marked you for the rest of your life. I think every family can relate to what Sedaris is getting at, that humor within the family is meant to be a little annoying, a little repetitive, and once the joke sticks, it sticks with you for the rest of your life (no matter what).

On a side note, I can even find humor in Sedaris’ choice of title, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Being that he even mentions denim Sedaris’ title exaggerates the theme that is weaved throughout the novel, the influence of conventions within the American culture and how they shape a family (and society). As discussed in my geology class, denim/jeans are a major characteristic of Americans. With the mere mention of jeans, Sedaris demonstrates the influence of American society within his family (as we see this theme within the mention of TV influences in the first half of the novel in the first chapter).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Personal Statement--Victor Turner and Kutiyattam

The intermeshing of the sacred with satire found in the Kutiyattam ritual immediately struck me as foreign and strange. Is it possible for the cosmic and comic to get too close?  Such intentional sacrilege as a working model of humor seems to inherently violate what it seeks to uphold, not spanning the liminal gap that exists between the human and the divine but driving these two entities further apart. 

            However, I noticed a strong parallel between the intended purpose of the satire in Kutiyattam and a fundamental teaching of my own religion, Catholicism.  Turner writes about the ‘leveling’ or communitas that occurs in the socially disparate congregation as a result of the Vidusaka’s artfully aimed jests.  The concept of communitas and the Catholic idea that we are one body in Christ seem to rest on the same perfectly leveled foundation. But we have nothing that even comes close to a Vidusaka in Catholicism to bring us to such an understanding.  We do not laugh to achieve our unity—not at ourselves and especially not at the aims of the Catholic life!  (The clown’s satire on the four aims of Hindu life is said to be one of the highlights of Kutiyattam.) Like so many principles of Catholicism, belief in the collective unity of all is something that is simply accepted. Though our belief in the collective unity of all people may be enforced actively by doing service, it is internalized passively, reinforced by prayer and our own sacred texts, the Gospels.  Occasionally a priest will say an amusing homily, but otherwise, chuckling in Church is taboo.

            But if I were a South Indian Hindu, I would probably raise my eyebrow at the ritual of eating the tiniest piece of wafer and taking a delicate sip of wine in communion with one another to effect unity.  Reading about Kutiyattam and reflecting on my immediate reaction to it has driven home a very important truth for me: religion operates by as diverse means across cultures as humor does. I don’t care how funny and artful someone’s delivery may be—after six straight hours of listening to him speak, it is highly unlikely that I will be capable of deriving comic relief from anything he says.  The multiplicity of languages seems like it would get tedious and frustrate me more than it would awaken my sense of wonder and prime me for a humorous response.  And given the deeply ingrained sensibilities from my Catholic upbringing, it seems like it would take a lot for me to allow myself to let loose within a sacred space (even when surrounded by an uproarious audience).  It is exactly this kind of disparity that makes life interesting and anthropology possible. Examination of cultural rituals confronts us with the selective nature of central aspects of our lives like religion and the things we find funny—both in the ‘ha-ha’ and the ‘strange’ sense of the word.