And Nothing But the TruthcSorta (Part 2)
I hereby declare this to be a four-part series. The first three will deal
with Americafs three most prominent and beloved lying memoirists; the fourth
will explain why, despite my comparably vague acquaintanceship with truth-telling,
I will never quite measure up to those three. So at least you know just
how long and hard this particular slog is going to be.
Our subject today: Mr. David Sedaris.
After my first book came out, I began hearing/reading comparisons of my style
with Sedarisfs. Those making the comparison clearly intended it as a
compliment; ergo, I was intrigued. [By the way, herefs how out of it I am: Ifm
not even sure how to pronounce this chapfs name. You say se-DARE-is, I say
se-DAH-risc] Thatfs when I bought Me Talk Pretty One Day and started
reading it poolside in Waikiki in the fall of 2007.
It started off well enough. The first chapter centered on his sessions with a
speech therapist in fifth grade, and was amusing. This guy is good, I
said to myself, and much more comprehensible than Frey. The next story
jumped ahead a few years and dealt with the guitar lessons his father forced
him to take from a midget. This is where ambivalence started to creep over me.
On the one hand, I admired the way he organized the book as a series of essays
utterly independent of one another. (Ifm not being ironic here.) Ifd been
operating under the assumption that a memoir had to be, if not onefs entire
life story, at least a set of episodes from onefs life story bound together by
a unifying theme: the trauma of growing up a Klingon hermaphrodite, say--or, in
my case, my bumbling interactions with Japanese females; or dumb stuff I did
during the year 1975.
It soon became apparent that Sedaris felt no need for such unifying themes: he
just strung together whatever funny anecdotes bubbled into his head. I was
taken by the idea; it was as liberating to me as the decision to throw out the
chord changes was to the jazz musicians of the Fifties.
[Later, I realized that the disconnect from one Sedaris chapter to the next is
simply a function of the fact that most of those chapters had been published
earlier as non-serial magazine pieces. Needless to say, this made his
organizational gambit seem much less daring. But I still admire the fact that
he pulled it off.]
All thatfs to the good. However, much of the story of the midget guitar
teacher just didnft ring true. The character was too broad and buffoonish,
etc. It was clear that he was no longer reporting his memories here but
just making stuff up. Now, throwing the theme out of memoir writing is one thing, but if you
throw the memories out of a memoir, what have you got? Just -oir
I guess. Whatever that is.
I shook off the midget guitar teacher story, hoping it to be an aberration, but
my see-saw battle with credibility would rage on. The next chapter was a
benign, fluffy piece on his fatherfs eccentricities; no problems there. But the
following item, gTwelve Moments in the Life of an Artist,h was an uphill climb
from start to finish. Most of this piece detailed Sedarisfs days in college,
when he had eccentric friends and took lots of speed. At the time, I myself had
just finished drafting a memoir about my own college days and the eccentric
friends and god-awful lot of speed that highlighted the era, so I was on
familiar turf here.
Since Sedaris hung out with avant-garde artists rather than southwestern
Minnesota farm boys, I was prepared to accept that his friends would make for
more colorful storytelling fodder than mine did; I was fully willing to concede
that point. But...but some of these storiesc When I finally got to the
sentence, gHis living room contained nothing but an enormous nest made of human
hair,h I sadly closed the book and began scanning the pool area for someone of
legal age to mentally undress.
You know, the sad thing is, I canft see why Sedaris makes stuff up. Itfs so
unnecessary for someone of his tremendous gifts. It puts me in mind of nothing
so much as Barry Bondsfs steroid use in that sense.
But if the why is unknowable, the how is pretty clear-cut. I see it as a
1. Make up compelling, funny stories about family and friends; use many of
their real names to enhance credibility; publish stories as nonfiction and
preface books with assurances of their contentfs factuality.
2. In obscure interviews unlikely to be seen or heard by the average reader,
admit to using gexaggerationh; but make no effort to alert the bulk of the fans
to the booksf actual non-nonfiction status.
3. When the backlash inevitably kicks in and therefs the threat that readers
may start to feel cheated, simply point out the existence of all those
interviews over the years and say that surely everyone knew all along that the
stuff wasnft really true, nor was it ever meant to be taken as such. Cheated
readers will lay down their pitchforks, because nobody wants to be perceived as
the last villager to get the memo.
By now I suppose I sound as bitter as a rural Pennsylvanian primary voter
clinging to his guns in his church pew. So donft mind me; instead go to this
eminently credible New Republic
article by Alex Heard for which Sedaris himself is a source.
Therefs plenty to get mad about here, especially if, unlike me, youfve
been invested in the Sedaris oeuvre for years on the assumption that it
is, as advertised, fact-based. Although thatfs one poor investment that
I managed to avoid, I still got pretty warm reading the account of the
time Sedaris was sent by Esquire to write an honest-to-god nonfiction piece, with what the author himself
admits were mixed results at best. Rigorously enforced nonfiction was too
hard for him, he complained, because gI couldn't exaggerate at all.h
Well, Ifve got news for you, David. Itfs supposed to be hard! If it were
easy, everybody would do it! Itfs the hard that makes it great!
(Okay, I stole that speech from Tom Hanksfs character in A League of their Own. It
holds up, though.)
Ifm trying now to put myself in the position of a faithful Sedaris reader who
laughed at many stories on the assumption that they portray people who really
existed and describe incidents that more or less really happened. I can only
compare it to the rationalization process that my friends and I went through
around age eleven, when we began to smell the coffee regarding professional
Unable to believe that a sport we had invested so heavily in was an enormous,
pulsating, frothy-mouthed lie, we began telling each other things like gThat
last elbow smash was fake, but that drop-kick right there? That was
Over time, though, the fakeness of the elbow smashes overwhelmed even the most
exhilarating and convincing drop-kicks, pile-drivers, and stepover toe-holds,
and the scales fell from our eyes. Baron von Raschke, we would learn, was a guy
from Omaha, not a monster from Dachau. Having someone apply The Claw to your
face tickles like all get out but it wonft cause a grown man in tights to go
Over time, I forgave professional wrestling and even came to enjoy it on an
ironic level. The thing is, on those rare occasions--the Olympics, mainly--when
I find myself watching wrestling wrestling, I realize that I can no
longer trust it, either. And thatfs why Sedaris presents a problem. When
people can no longer invest themselves in his stories, they will be reluctant
to invest themselves in mine or yours or those of any other aspiring memoirist.
I have a fairly large assortment of amusing true yarns that Ifd like to try to
tell readers, but these stories only work if (a) I tell them really, really
well and (b) the reader can accept them as true. I have stories about somewhat
odd friends, colleagues, teachers, relatives, about mundane rogues and about
What I donft have is a friend who furnished his home in human hair or a
comically obnoxious midget guitar teacher. David Sedaris has made my job that much
harder, and thatfs how he got on this list.
PS: Here's Jack Shafer of Slate backing up Alex Heard.