Monday, February 1, 2010

#7: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Without much in the way of proof, I submit that Me Talk Pretty One Day is best enjoyed under the influence of serious narcotics. This is an admittedly uncertain proposal and one I have failed to test firsthand, but really not so harebrained upon deeper reflection. David Sedaris, the "author" of this "book," appeared to be in just such a state for the entirety of its writing. (I enclose "author" and "book" in quotes because I'm not convinced either moniker really describes its respective object.)

Where do I get this idea? Perhaps from his track record. "After a few months in my parents' basement, I took an apartment near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art," Sedaris muses. "Either one of these things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations." Later, a chapter begins with the simple declaration, "I'm thinking of making a little jacket for my clock radio." In the chapter entitled "I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed" (situated toward the end of Part Deux, directly succeeding Part One), a bemused Sedaris living in France grapples with the idiocy of an event organizer coordinating a show in which young men taunt an enraged cow. "I'm willing to bet that he had some outstanding drug connections," the author deadpans. "How else could a person come up with this stuff?" Twenty bucks says readers will speak similarly of David Sedaris.

In fact, it is hard to say with any certainty which parts of this book are true and which are figments of Sedaris' hyperactive imagination. To this end, clues may be found in the chapter "The Late Show," which consists of various autobiographical fantasies involving saving the world from cancer and bestowing youthful features upon everyone but the ruthless editors of fashion magazines. ("Here are people who have spent their lives promoting youthful beauty, making everyone over the age of thirty feel like an open sore. Now, too late, they'll attempt to promote liver spots as the season's most sophisticated accessory. 'Old is the new young,' they'll say, but nobody will listen to them.") But Me Talk Pretty One Day is as concerned with its own veracity as Animal Farm is with mutinous livestock. To debate its accuracy is meaningless; the point lies decidedly elsewhere.

This memoir, if the genre can stomach this latest addition to its ranks, embraces black humor with a strange ease, as Sedaris channels Robert Downey, Jr.'s Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In short, Me Talk Pretty One Day is clearly more style than substance. Or is it? The author's sardonic send-ups of everything from Americans traveling abroad to the laughable pretension at art exhibitions are riddled with jolting allusions to a less comic reality. After concluding his lengthy digression into juvenile daydreams of worldly super-stardom while living in Paris, Sedaris quietly notes that all of his fantasies revolve around impressing only fellow Americans. "...It doesn't interest me to manipulate the French. I'm not keyed into their value system. Because they are not my people, their imagined praise or condemnation means nothing to me. Paris, it seems, is where I've come to dream about America." Such words arrive unexpectedly, sandwiched as they are between a longing for an affair with President Clinton and a story of the author's father ingesting a hat.

It is in these similarly contrasting tones of irony and sobriety that Sedaris tackles his first spells with drugs and the displacement he felt as he coped with his sexual identity in a traditional childhood. Self-pity is never considered, and self-deprecation never remitted. His writing prompts sudden, inappropriate laughter as well as eyebrows scrunched together in perplexity. Both reactions feel natural, given the text. In the strange and beautiful world of David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day probably makes some sense. Fortunately for the rest of us to whom it does not, he doesn't seem to mind much either way.