In the last few years if you have ever written a poem that began, “my angry lesbian breasts” or if you have written a novel that involves vampires, but yours are different because they have superpowers that involve cheese, you have most likely been rejected by a M.F.A. program. Do not lose heart, somewhere out there is a gentleman eating cheese wiz from a homemade mason jar that’s used to hold ear wax who believes in you and follows your blog. The reason you were most likely rejected is that fiction has become increasingly viewed by many in the intellectual community as old hat. In my own university I have seen as literature programs are increasingly put aside in favor of Composition and Writing Center theory classes, and while I am not negating these courses (anything but, they have just as much relevance to our society and culture), it is still a tragic development. As for the case for Creative Writing, it is a sad condition that virtually everyone has a novel to write, everyone has a series, and alas, everyone must publish theirs at the same time. The stuff of fiction is becoming watered down and therefore those who wish to bring a fresh, creative perspective are encouraged to pursue what is known as Creative Non-Fiction.
I first became aware of David Sedaris three years ago when a friend loaned me a copy of his book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. I remember adoring nearly every story for while some passages were basically sweet, the majority of them were the rankest sort of black humor that would turn a seasoned Rugby player pink with shame. That metaphor doesn’t make sense, but I think you get the point. Apart from enjoying a lovely story about a dying lab rat and an ass-kissing baboon, I enjoyed the morals that seemed to appear and solidify into legitimate ethical concerns.
As quickly as he arrived however he left. I told my friend I would buy the book even though I had no real intention to. It happens man. You say you’re going to do something, and in the moment you absolutely are, but then you run into a friend and you’re THAT person’s friend so there’s another list of things you’re TOTALLY going to do as soon as you stop seeing them, and after that you’re in class and you HAVE to be THAT person, and well, by the time you’ve been THAT person to ten or twenty people, original intent is like a passing giraffe fart.
David Sedaris returned to my life briefly. I, like many people, pretend to be informed and political by watching the Daily Show, missing the entire point of the program which is to pursue your own initiative and develop an informed opinion by recognizing most of the media is full of shit. Anyway, I watched this interview and fell apart at the whipped cream statement.
Did I rush out to buy Mr. Sedaris’s book?
Instead I went about my life reading other books. Taking classes in college. Getting Married. Moving into a new house. Beginning Grad school. It was not until about halfway through my first semester of it that David Sedaris’s book re-entered my life. Meeting up with a friend to discuss our Romanticism project I arrived at Barnes & Noble a bit early, quite sure I was going to leave with a copy of Finnegan’s Wake. I read three lines and placed the book under my arm.
For the life of me I’m not sure why, I thought of the book and wanted to read just a few lines. Finding the “Owl book” first, I opened to the first “story” and read the following lines:
One thing that puzzled me during the American Healthcare debate was all the talk about socialized medicine and how ineffective it’s supposed to be. The Canadian plan was likened to genocide, but even worse were the ones in Europe, where patients languished on filthy cots, waiting for aspirin to be invented.
Dentists Without Borders is the first of 26 stories in which life is delivered, not with dragons, not with hyperbolic language about language written inside language about language, it does not employ words like “fuck” or “shit” simply for attention, in fact every oddity or attempt at it is presented as banal yet liberated from oversaturation typical of most efforts in fiction. Sedaris’s work re-invents the modern experience in that it masters the tone that nothing in this life of ours is ever truly revolutionary and that it is the little moments that build towards our eventual awareness of how ridiculous or profound a moment was. Of course in that moment all we can ever truly process is the absurdity, but upon reflection this absurd moment we stumble upon…excuse me I found an old Hershey’s kiss under my desk. It’s dry. There are some cracks in it. Maybe if I just take a bite. Taste like chalky ass. I haven’t tasted in ass since high school.
Scattered throughout the book are short snippets of what amount to dramatic monologues, soliloquies performed in the voice of some character. If I Ruled the World begins with the lines
If I ruled the world, the first thing I’d do is concede all power to the real King, who, in case you don’t happen to know, is named Jesus Christ. A lot of people have managed to forget this lately, so the second thing I’d do is remind them of it.
This is followed not long thereafter by
Christ’s picture will go on all our money, and if you had your checks specially with sailboats or shamrocks on them, too bad for you because from here on out, the only images allowed will be of Him, or maybe of me reminding you of how important he is.
Most of the actual book, which I did buy, I probably should have mentioned that earlier. Finnegans Wake was lot like a Kidney Stone at that moment, something that needed to be done but I wasn’t quite ready to drop my pants and tackle that nightmare, is about Sedaris’s family particularly the father. In the beginning there is the pressure to measure up in his father’s eyes, later in The Happy Place he pretends to have cancer after his father has pressured him into a colonoscopy that he thoroughly enjoyed, in Standing Still he tries to defend his sister to the man after he suggests that rape attempt against her was her own fault, and in Laugh, Kookaburra he attempts to defend the fact that he has indeed “been” to Australia but loses the argument. It’s obvious that the family situation is conflicted, but once again Sedaris manages to paint what could be in other books a deep intensive look at the pitfalls of the modern familial unit as just “dad” wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a smile.
In Author, Author Sedaris describes shopping for little free tokens to hand out to teenagers because after all a teenager has better shit to do…actually, why don’t I let him tell you:
Adults get something for special occasions, but the bulk of my presents go to teenagers, who qualify by virtue of their very existence. Real fun is right at their fingertips, but instead of taking bong hits in a stolen car or getting pregnant in a neighbor’s toolshed, they’ve come to a bookstore to hear a middle-aged man read out loud. And for that they deserve a token of my gratitude.
Sedaris goes on relate of buying a big plastic tub of condoms with his brother-in-law that begins to disturb him. He worries that people are becoming more and more aware of how “gay” they appear together. At his behest, his brother-in-law goes in search of something else to put in the cart:
Bob disappeared into the acreage reserved for produce and returned a minute later with a four-pound box of strawberries. This somehow made us look even gayer. “After anal sex, we like shortcake!” read the cartoon bubble now floating over our head.
“Something else,” I said. “We’ve got to get something else.”
“Bob, oblivious, looked up at the rafters and thought for a moment. “I guess I could use some olive oil.”
Sedaris’s work captures a contemporary spirit, a trend in our narrative structure. While fiction and stories are by no means dead, their ability to capture the zeitgeist of literary thought seems to be dwindling as personal reflection and diaries reveal more about the human condition than the works of most of our living novelists. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a graphic novel that I have written about numerous times in this blog, follows this very trend by creating, not an original inspiration, but a re-shaped presentation of personal account. The audience of today, while it is accommodating to large stories, seems to be growing alienated from big budget pictures that require seventeen million dollars worth of CGI just to accurately present the grass. Trying to tell the epic is growing stale because our contemporary lives are not epic. While I may desire to wear tights and defeat monsters from extra dimensions, the reality of my existence is far simpler than that. I go to school, I read books, I write papers, I work, and then I come home and write. This is not a negation of imagination, but a re-channeling of it into a new narrative. Our lives, and by the looks of it, our stories will be rooted more in our day-to-day activities that can only ever gain real meaning once we have recorded them and come back to them later.
This semester I discovered an abandoned umbrella in one of the offices where I work. It was painfully feminine as it was decorated in mauve, daisy yellow, and bathroom tile turquoise diamonds over a pastel blue background, but dammit it had a curvy “wooden” handle. I took it for myself and the consequences be damned. However I did not use it right away. Like many of the little gems I’ve stolen from places of work or casual acquaintances (don’t judge or I’ll tell Steven about his “lost” espresso machine) it immediately was cast aside so that my criminal offense could be forgotten and become banal in my eyes. “anybody would have taken it, it’s not my fault.” Several weeks went by and naturally I forgot it when an opportunity to be the pretentious literary snob appeared and I dressed the part. I wore my Sherlock trench coat, my leather “Walt Whitman” hat, my cowboy boots, but I needed an umbrella. Snatching the stolen gem I ignored the feminine appearance and took it with me to school. I figured out, as I walked to the library, that it was not only the best umbrella I had ever acquired (I almost wrote bought) it could also serve as a wonderful walking stick.
God I was a pretentious looking twit, but dammit, I looked like Mycroft Holmes.
Not but a week later I met a friend who worked with me in the office where I found this wonderful tool and, this is where it becomes painful, I spent at least five minutes discussing how wonderful this umbrella was, how it was without a doubt the best one I had ever owned. When we walked into the office another of my co-employee’s looked up at the pair of us and rather quickly asked me, “Hey, where did you find my umbrella? I’ve been looking everywhere for that.”
My friend about fell on his ass he was laughing so hard.
“I was keeping it in here just in case it rained.”
I eventually managed to buy the umbrella off of her for $20. Nothing though, will ever match that perfect moment, when my small yet ever so brilliant achievement of personal satisfaction, came falling down around my pompous ass like a crumbling building.
What does this pathetic story have to do with Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls? In one of the later essays, Sedaris describes his compulsion for diary keeping, and in it he captures a human moment I have yet to truly observe in almost any contemporary literature:
Writing about it the following morning, I’d recalled how incredulous the boy had sounded. Yes, the guinea pigs were big—like furry slippers, sizes nine and ten and a half. They were hardly gargantuan though. Had he possibly confused them with hamsters? The look on his face and his unexpected reactions—evoking Jesus as a weather-beaten adult would—were remarkable to me, and standing there in that dinky zoo, my knee throbbing, my little notebook firmly in hand, I knew I needed to keep the moment forever.
Sedaris’s book is funny, and most likely a book you’ll find sitting next to the john, but if a reader can get past the humor they may see the work of, not just a terrific writer, but a true artist. Sedaris paints with words, moments in human existence that last forever because they are images of such perfect serendipity they convey more about what it means to be human than most authors are able to do over the course of their entire lives. I am not attempting to suggest that aspiring authors with bents of fantasy should abandon their thousand pages manifestos, and instead write personal accounts about farting and going to the grocery store. Though I’m sure they could produce some great material. I am just trying to get at the idea that in art simplicity can often yield profound results. The Impressionist movement was largely ignored by their contemporaries both because of their method of presenting their material, but also because their work was simply reproductions of contemporary society. To be an artist meant you had to paint classical reproductions or sections of the Bible. It was the grand narratives and images that were valued more than mundane impressions. Critics seem to be cursed with a lack of foresight because soothsayers they ain’t. The Impressionists became one of the most influential school of art in history, and the moments from everyday life they captured have lived on after they’ve died.
In the long run, trying to write a story about buying your boyfriend a stuffed owl may reveal more about the human condition than vampires. But that might just be the Valium talking.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is available at Barnes & Noble and other places where books may be purchased, read briefly, and then quickly dropped for the latest season of Game of Thrones.