This book of collected essays is his first in four years; I feel I should say something about the time it takes to produce good work in such a craft, but I also get the funny feeling that Sedaris is so compulsively self-chronicling that he must churn out scads of content. The tough part is choosing the best and refining them into the literary gold that we’re used to from him.
In many ways, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is the most maudlin of his books so far; it’s funny, because the book is sort of themed around the large capstone piece “The Smoking Section,” wherein Sedaris details both his history of smoking and his attempt to quit in Japan. It’s mostly self-deprecating, like most of his writing, and it’s always a little startling how brutally honest Sedaris is, even when relating his own embarrassing thoughts and proclivities. I suppose it may be this which makes him so charming—you may think, going into it, that’s he’s just some effete homosexual intellectual, a limp-wristed writer who lives in France with his boyfriend and does segments for NPR. But then he says things so frankly (and funnily) that you can’t help but be drawn into it, commiserating silently when he admits some normally-unmentionable sin (mentally criticizing a grieving man, for instance) and laughing in spite of yourself.
Sedaris is at his most brash when talking about stupid people: in Me Talk Pretty One Day, it was a world-class douchebag on a Paris subway who assumed that no one around him could understand him when he ran his mouth; in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the highlight might come when he manages to piss off a touchy female traveler, and then accidentally sneeze a cough drop into her lap while she sleeps. Most pair Sedaris’ all-too-human criticism with a sort of world-weary self examination, which in the context of the essay brings Sedaris qua narrator to the cusp of some liberal, buy-the-world-a-Coke revelation before he, like his readers, comes to the conclusion that you simply Can’t Fix Stupid.
But I mentioned that this book seemed his most maudlin, and perhaps I’m simply misremembering his previous works. On second thought, “maudlin” is the wrong word, since I’ve never known Sedaris to be either overly-morose or purposely manipulative. I think perhaps Sedaris dwells a little more on the somber, and introduces a little less burlesque into his essays here; perhaps he’s mellowing with age, or perhaps his ability to write seriously (which has, let’s face it, always been good anyway) is even more promising, diminishing the humor by dint of relativity.
Whatever it is, When You Are Engulfed in Flames strikes me as a bit left or right of center, but still easily within Sedaris’ sweet spot. It’s a solid collection of essays, as always: it will make you laugh, it will make you think (or perhaps cry, if that’s your predisposition). If you’re a fan, read it; if you’re new to Sedaris, this book is as good a place as any other to get started.