After the Gothic melodrama of #BroodingabouttheBrontës, it was with a deep sigh of contentment that I settled down to read a David Sedaris book. Billed by several critics as David Sedaris’ best book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim has the feel of a real comfort read for me as more than a few of the chapters are familiar from BBC Radio 4’s Meet David Sedaris. I am a crazy little fan girl. I got incredibly excited when I spotted he had a reading tour coming up and nearly cried when it was pointed out to me that the dates didn’t work. Seeing him live is high on my personal bucket list. For the uninitiated, David Sedaris may in fact be the world’s greatest storyteller (it’s not just me that thinks so) and while it is his radio delivery which is best of all, the books are still outrageously entertaining. It is wonderful to have a portable slice of Sedaris stories to carry around and I do believe that this is my favourite yet.
Highlights in this collection include “Six to Eight Black Men” (a harrowing/hilarious account of the Christmas traditions within the Netherlands) and the tale of David Sedaris’ despondent house-hunt which took him to a mildly surreal encounter within the Anne Frank house, but the majority of the chapters deal with Sedaris’ upbringing and early adulthood. I could see why people thought that this was his best book though; I am a fan of everything of his that I have ever heard/read/watched (and seriously, this video had me giggling so hard I nearly fell off my chair), but Dress Your Family appeared to have the greatest unity thematically. We hear about how Sedaris handled being uprooted to North Carolina, being one of a crowd of siblings in ‘Let It Snow’, the family holidays to the Emerald Isle in ‘The Ship Shape’ and his budding discomfort with his own identity in ‘Full House’ and ‘Consider the Stars’. More than any of his other books that I have read so far, this had the feel of a memoir rather than a series of comic essays. Indeed, this book also has a far more reflective and even regretful tone than much of his other work.
There is the short description of how his father showed him the door after living in their basement for six months after dropping out of college. David supposed that this was due to his drug abuse and unemployment, but later on he would realise that in fact this was due to his parents’ realisation of his homosexuality, but they were too uncomfortable to say so directly. Even while we laugh at the family’s excitement about the prospective new holiday home in ‘The Ship Shape’, there is the sadness and disappointment as the children come to realise that their father will not deliver. David remains highly self-critical in the chapters set in his later life, often expressing sadness for his failings as a brother, with particular poignance regarding his sister Tiffany who would die a few years later, an event once more chronicled in one of his monologues. I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be a sibling to David Sedaris, to be the subject of these deeply affectionate but also incredibly personal portraits, to have one’s life story laid bare before the world.
Sedaris’ writing and story-telling always has the ability to both make me laugh but then also stop and pause to think about my life. There are few writers with whom I feel such a personal connection but in Dress Your Family, I felt the pain behind so much of his writing more than ever before. The story ‘The Girl Next Door’, concerning Sedaris’ thwarted kindness towards his neighbour’s neglected daughter seemed particularly tragic. So often we read Sedaris abusing himself through the voices of his family members but here is his generousity and good nature, all done against his mother’s advice, and yet she is proved right. Sedaris implies subtly the damage family members can inflict on each other – the scars we leave on those we love which leave no mark but which refuse to fade – he knows that he loves his sister Tiffany and also that if he cleans her decrepit kitchen, she will hate him for it. But he loves her, so he starts into the cleaning just the same.
For all of this reflection, this is still a riotously funny book. The episode where he meets a fetishist while working as a house-cleaner was particularly toe-curling; Sedaris attempts to indicate that he is not interested in this man’s not so subtle advances and clatters about as the client begins masturbating in front of him. The awkwardness of this was highly recognisable to me, given that I recently had a plane flight where the stranger sitting next to me spent most of the journey staring at me and then cracked out his phone to take my picture without my consent upon landing. My boyfriend insisted that I should have confronted him but yet all I felt that I could do was stare at my book and pretend it wasn’t happening. Nothing like as outlandish as Sedaris’ experience (but then so few of my experiences are!), however it captures that same sense of confusion at highly inappropriate behaviour. My personal favourite remains ‘Nuit of the Living Mort’ though, when a lost tourist stops on Sedaris’ porch in Normandy and catches him in the act of drowning a mouse. Like a Woody Allen who it’s actually ok to like, Sedaris’ viewpoint on his own self is both painful and hilarious to read.
Dress Your Family is not just a glorious compendium of many of Sedaris’ best known stories but also feels like his most accomplished work. For all that so many of his stories are exercises in varying forms of self-humiliation, Sedaris the writer is incredibly confident. His prose and tone never falters, the chapters always end on a pitch-perfect moment of self-realisation which appeals directly to the reader. I remember hearing him say in an interview that he tried not to censure himself since he had found that the thoughts about which he was ashamed were sure to strike a chord with others who share the same secret shame. Even the cover of this book seems to recall the idea of laying oneself bare, yet despite his many confessed faults, I find it impossible not to have affection for Sedaris, nor to fail to enjoy this outstanding collection of stories.
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Published by Hachette UK on September 16th 2010
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, General, Humor, Form, Anecdotes & Quotations, Fiction
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