Josh Muggins's Blah Blah Blah

04: July 14, 2008

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 three-step process:

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 wrestling.

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 real.h

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 into seizures.

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 workaday heroes.

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