By now it's impossible to know for sure if David Sedaris is the most deeply gifted American humorist since Mark Twain due to his talent as a writer or as a reader. Maybe it's not a case of being one or the other, but both. Have Joan Baez pick up a guitar and sing Blowin' in the Wind and you're likely to nod your head in polite recognition. Have Bob Dylan pick up a guitar and sing Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd and you're sure to tap your foot. Have him pick up the same guitar and sing his own It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and you're liable to have a different hairstyle, a pregnant sister and an aquarium full of dead fish by the time he finishes – there's a big difference. Likewise, to hear somebody other than Sedaris read The Santaland Diaries or You Can't Kill the Rooster aloud would be like having a female impersonator expound endlessly upon the profoundly cathartic agony of childbirth.
Looking like a tasteful blend of Stan Laurel and Woody Allen – baggy pants and the serene face of a timid saint made beautiful by a fiendish twinkle in his eyes – Sedaris stepped out onto the stage at UCLA's Macgowan Hall Little Theater last week and explained to the audience the reason for his visit. The program was billed as The Black Box Readings, a black box typically being defined as anything that has mysterious or unknown internal functions, and he announced that he would be workshopping, for six straight nights plus one afternoon, a handful of new stories to be published this June. The title of the collection, Indefinite Leave to Remain, referrs to an immigration status granted to a person who doesn't hold the right of abode in the United Kingdom but is allowed to stay indefinitely, a status literally true for Sedaris who left France for England sometime last year.
With pencil in hand, Sedaris read for 90 minutes with the grace and ease of a man tracing his finger around roses on wallpaper, marking his manuscript without pausing in accord with whatever groans, guffaws or empty silences his fans offered up as spontaneous reaction. During the Q&A session on this first night's performance, he admitted that sometimes simply writing the word “death” next to a passage too leaden to lift itself from the page was sufficient. Of course, inviting such a generous level of audience participation into the writing process is nothing new for monologists such as George Carlin and Bill Hicks and Rodney Dangerfield, or for any number of playwrights hoping to streamline the momentum of their scripted conversation. It is, however, unique to an author of literary nonfiction, which is what an increasing number of critics, university department heads responsible for drafting curriculum and subscribers to the New Yorker now consider Sedaris to be. Doubtful that one could ever expect others similarly classified – such notables as Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion or Hunter S. Thompson – to embark on this sort of tour specifically designed to elicit the opinion of the rabble as part of the editing process.
Indeed, if Wolfe was ever so open as to invite the opinions of the reading public into his creative process he would've been forced decades ago to decide between his idiotic white suit and his typewriter. Likewise, Didion might've developed the right kind of paranoia that would've prevented her from naming her daughter Quintana Roo and Thompson might've found even more drug dealing, anti-authoritarian gun enthusiasts to hang out with.
That said, anyone at all familiar with Sedaris's work knows that the generosity with which he listens to the reactions of his audience during his workshopping tours is merely an extension of his desire to avoid the self-absorption and pomposity and isolation so pandemic through the profession. His books, after all, might best be described as the plain-spoken meditations of one man hoping to explore all the pain and beauty that comes from a writer's personal relationship with a universe that doesn't give a shit about him. Ironically, it is a universe that we typically read other authors to escape from. It is a universe that is indifferent to our pointless search for an existential narrative that requires the inclusion of archetypal heroes and villains to achieve its balance. It is a universe that, when we're honest with ourselves and feel as if no one is threatening us with judgment, makes a home for all our most despicable and mawkish and petty ideas. In other words, it is a universe that is willing to be a vast and exquisitely massive asshole into which we can scapegoat our failings.
Of greatest meaning to his readership, myself included, it is a universe that looks and feels the most authentic to our most private thoughts and our deepest insecurities and our most unifying imperfections as a species.
When asked by a member of the audience at the end of the first evening's reading if exposing such imperfections within his own family was a strain on his relationship with them – his family, of course, famously seen as being an inexhaustible fuel source, the Saudi Arabia if you will, for some of his brightest and most electrifying pieces – he didn't even crack a smile. It was almost as if to assume the treachery of such a betrayal on his part bordered on real unforgivable stupidity. “Everybody has secrets they don't want anybody to know about, my family included,” he said. “I'd never expose anything private [they] didn't want me to talk about. They read every story I write before it's published.”
As a credit to the mastery of his craft, everyone seemed genuinely shocked by this news, for to read Sedaris is to assume that such meticulous detail surrounding every unflattering blemish and character flaw introduced as part of his literary portraiture could only have come as a result of him picking over every last bit of debris left from demolished relationships and broken trusts and secrets pulled kicking and screaming into the light.
Put another way, David Sedaris was telling us that he'd never use the excuse of honesty to deliberately fart into the face of his audience and insist that it was art. Instead, he'd prefer to pass gas into a whoopee cushion and then place it under the collective sofa cushion of our more pompous and elitist and self-aggrandizing misconception of ourselves as noble creations with the understanding that the inappropriate sound of flatulence is only half of what's truly comical and absurd about the human condition. It is the stinkiness of life, after all, that forces us to celebrate our virtues as counterbalance.Also visit Dwayne Booth's Catch of the Day blog at blogs.laweekly.com/fish