When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

A few months ago, a couple of kindred spirits and I decided that the vast majority of popular art needed a new criteria by which to be judged. Labels such as “good” and “bad” had become somewhat unfashionable and were constantly subject to intellectually grating arguments that made liberal use of the word “relative”. However, social sentiment appeared to similarly interdict any use of marked subjectivity; after all if there was no universality in what was being said, all that was being achieved was (to bastardize Husserl’s words) a multiplication of “ … philosophies, but never philosophy”.

Thus, in the service of general enlightenment and the welfare of truth, my compatriots coined to judgment of “doing what one’s job is”. Simply, such an evaluation measured what the book was trying to accomplish, or what it should be trying to accomplish, against what it accomplished in fact. Now, we were perfectly aware that this was no more a satisfactory criterion than that which we had before but, for a brief period of time, we could content ourselves justifying our tastes in Uwe Boll films and music by overdramatic songsters on the grounds that these individuals “did what their jobs were”.

David Sedaris is the preeminent instance of an author who does what his job is. No one picks up a Sedaris work expecting anything but clever, aleatoric prose from an author whose attunement to his own life can be most fittingly summed up as a neat composition of incredulousness. Furthermore, Sedaris always, with metronomic precision, delivers. Story after story is what you want and expect, jovially straddling the line between the devils of the formulaic and the angels of dependable consistency.

In fact, one almost always finds themselves, halfway into a Sedaris collection, wishing that he would falter so that next piece would bring new heights of elation as a return to form. Alas, such missteps are exasperatingly infrequent; one could set their literary clocks by these works (in an elaborately abstract sense).

When You Are Engulfed in Flames presents 20-some story/essays about Sedaris’ life and it would be no small task for me to single out any piece in this collection which did not incite audible laughter in this reader, much to the dismay of the other patrons of the local coffeehouse I periodically pollute with my guffawing. Among the most memorable are accounts of a young Sedaris coming out to sexual deviants whilst hitchhiking, misadventures with an external catheter, and a foul mouthed foreign cab driver who is soundly lambasted by Sedaris for an affinity for poor English and a love of pornography. Although these stories stand out, Flames should clock in at about three chuckles per minute, the clockwork acuity of Sedaris never flagging.

In fact, Sedaris does his job too well. So well, in fact, that when one is reading Flames they cannot help but cringe imagining the legions of bloggers, fan fictionistas, freshmen comp majors, et al. who are currently scrambling to emulate the style which Sedaris lays out time and time again. No sooner would I finish a chapter than I would peer over the shoulders of the bespectacled hip patrons of the coffee shop expecting to find detached memoirs tinted with an august darkness and replete with keen cultural references. I swore to myself if I even had the slightest inkling that such writers were shaking their heads to try to conjure a nonplussed relationship to their own histories, I was going to follow them home and burn their bookcases. My arson record is still spotless, but only for lack of stealth.

In conclusion, Sedaris is so consistent that he nears literary machinery but never loses an ounce of warmth or humanity. Sedaris fans are covetous mimes, and my friends are brilliant pop culture minds who will one day revolutionize the critical community with asinine categories of judgment. To wit: we all do what our jobs are.

RATING 7 / 10
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