Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ethics of Laughter: David Sedaris and Humour Memoir

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ethics of Laughter: David Sedaris and Humour Memoir

Article excerpt

The events described in these stories are realish," writes David Sedaris in the author's note for the 2008 publication When You Are Engulfed In Flames. "Certain characters have fictitious names and identifying characteristics." The tone here is playful and provocative, as is Sedaris's choice of cover--a cropped reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's Skull with Cigarette, which hasn't appealed to some conservative American retailers. (1)

Unlike the cover, Sedaris's author's note is inconspicuous. Tucked halfway between the publishing and cataloging information on the imprint page, it seems no accident that his disclaimer about fact and fiction should come in the middle of what might be assumed to be the most authoritatively factual part of any book: its bibliographic data. We might see this author's note as Sedaris performing the natural extension of a humorist's art (diminishing gravitas, exposing sacred cows), but we can also see this note as having a more functional and conventional purpose; if this disclaimer is partly a thrust, it is also mostly a parry. Sedaris's family-based serial memoirs have attracted controversy for their blurring (or, as we argue, contesting) of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.

Sedaris is a humorist, a term that has a particularly North American history, and elsewhere might be synonymous to the satirist or comic writer. His first publication, Barrel Fever, capitalized on the success Sedaris had found reading autobiographical vignettes for National Public Radio. Sedaris's first broadcast, in 1992, was called "SantaLand Diaries," in which he described his real-life experiences working as a Christmas elf at a New York Macy's department store. The essay was subsequently included in Barrel Fever, and again in a Christmas-themed anthology called Holidays on Ice. However, Barrel Fever is unique in Sedaris's rapidly growing oeuvre because it clearly demarcates two sections: "Stories and Essays." A distinction between fiction and non-fiction, if it exists, is not signaled by such a structure in later publications; indeed, Sedaris's next chronological publication, the 1997 anthology Naked, explicitly enters and signals a wholly autobiographical territory: "The events described in these stories are real," Sedaris wrote in his introductory notes to the volume, and when it hit the New York Times best-seller list, Naked was categorized as non-fiction (Heard 35). By 2008, however, as the wry admission to "realish"-ness in When You Are Engulfed in Flames attests, seeing Sedaris's humorous autobiographical stories simply as life writing, and simply as "real," is no longer without provocation.

This essay looks at Sedaris's recent work in order to ask questions that have become particularly burning for publishers and consumers of non-fiction and memoir. Sedaris's assertions that his work is "realish" get to the heart of the debate and return to a very difficult ground for those of us who study or write non-fiction: namely, is it true, how do we know, and should we care? The central concern of these questions is a consideration for the ethics of life writing. Critics like Paul John Eakin have argued for recognition of the inherently relational nature of life writing: "Because we live our lives in relation to others, our privacies are largely shared, making it hard to demarcate where one life leaves off and another begins" (8). The inherently relational nature of life writing means that the fuzzy demarcation between one person's life "story" and another person's "life" as they become a character in said story makes for ethically hazardous territory.

Sedaris has made a career out of autobiographical narratives that are also stories about his family. While this focus of his work surfaces and diminishes at various points, some of his publications, like Naked, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and, to a lesser degree, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, deal primarily with stories of the Sedaris family, their childhood, their vacations, and their intimate group dynamics. …

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