When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
Published in 2008
Genre: Creative nonfiction
“My friend Patsy was telling me a story.”
Stories are what elevate much of the human experience, and it is the mark of a masterful storyteller to help their listeners or readers forget their problems and escape into a different world; this is true not only in fiction, but creative nonfiction as well. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris, is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that cover everything from coming out as a gay man in order to avoid an awkward hitchhiking situation to arguing the validity of different unknown artists with his parents as a child. The collected stories make for an entertaining read that gives the reader a look into a perspective different than their own.
In this collection of essays, Sedaris discusses a myriad of topics. He describes his college experience and the affect it had on his parents, the different ways he came out to different people in his life, and experiences while living in Paris and Japan. All of the stories concern his interaction with others, especially with his parents and what it was like to grow up with a budding interest in art that was commandeered by his parents. He talks about the difficulty he has in buying presents for others because he would rather find something that speaks to them as a person than ask for ideas or a list of some kind.
Sedaris is unabashedly honest in creating a character study of himself, describing the way he anthropomorphized the group of spiders living in his window sill as tenants in an arachnid apartment complex. Aside from Sedaris himself, one of the most memorable characters from his anecdotes is Helen, the neighbor Sedaris and his partner Hugh had when living in New York. She is boisterous, opinionated, and fierce in an endearing manner, quickly imbedding herself into the reader’s memory as a combination of multiple people’s personality quirks.
Sedaris is easy to read, and I was quickly lost in his characterizations and ability to tell a story. The prose is palatable and each essay is well-written with an arc that often leads comfortably into the next entry. He is very sarcastic and possesses a quick wit, creating a strong written voice and style that remain apparent throughout. Sedaris has a distinct personality that permeates his prose, both self-aware and self-deprecating in a way that is earnest and identifiable.
The final story in the book is called “The Smoking Section”, which is also where the book gets its name. Sedaris describes his experience as a smoker, his family history, the emergence of a smoke-free initiative and its affect on his life. When Sedaris finally quits smoking, he decides to move to Japan for a few months in order to help the transition of going cold-turkey. It is in Japan that he reads signs translated into awkward English, one of which is instructions in a hotel as to what to do “when you are engulfed in flames”. This last essay is the longest and culminates in journal entries that Sedaris made while in Japan, bringing the book to a fitting end and creating a sense of closure after his transformation.
This was another book that was difficult to take notes on, but for a couple of reasons. As I said above, Sedaris’s writing is very good and his pacing has a natural momentum that takes you from one story into the next. Many of the stories are bite-sized, and this helps the reader put down and pick up the book when opportune; however, being a creative nonfiction book, the reader has to take the author at their word at every turn. Sedaris is the sole source of these stories, so we must believe things are as he says, which means embellishment must take place, and that is where the “creative” in creative nonfiction comes in to play. I did enjoy reading this book, but I wouldn’t say that it is in my favorite genre of writing. If you are a fan of the genre, however, I am sure that this would be a welcome entry into your TBR list.
Verdict: 3 awkward English translations out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of creative nonfiction, nonsmokers, fans of David Sedaris, and those who like reading about other people’s lives.
Not recommended for: Smokers, the easily offended, those who dislike creative nonfiction, homophobes, or the apathetic.