‘When is the last time an actual human interaction made you laugh more than
a meme did?’ – Samantha Irby
If I hadn’t been immersed in the Sedarian worldview, I probably wouldn’t have made the offhand joke about ghosts to the ferry attendant. I definitely wouldn’t have caught that his intention, when he asked me about my beliefs regarding first ghosts, then angels, was to propound his own theories on the latter. And that would have meant not learning about how his personal angel recently saved him $18 at the car wash.
The Sedarian worldview is Jack Gilbert’s ‘A Brief for the Defense’, except the poor women laughing together at the fountain ‘between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future’ transform into a man encountering a rodent with a Cheeto in its mouth at Times Square. Somebody in the village is still very sick, and people are still dying in the Syrian civil war. We can’t weep all the time, so thank goodness for mice and ‘crumbled ham dummy’ and the pancake restaurant on Cox Road in Gastonia, North Carolina, that answers the phone with ‘IHOP on Cox!’
In the Sedarian worldview, everyone has the potential to share absurd and shocking revelations, if only we’re willing to listen and ask questions. Those questions can’t be how are you, how was your flight, how’s your day. Forget tedious small talk and jump straight in with ‘What’s your take on sausage?’
Everyone also has the potential to be an inconsiderate chatterbox holding up the queue at the airport Starbucks when you’re rushing to catch a connecting flight. And those people are never sharing their take on sausage, but droning on uselessly. Be compelling or get out of the way.
A Carnival of Snackery is the second volume of David Sedaris’s diaries, covering 2003 to 2020. Volume one begins in 1977, its 20-year-old author penniless and scrabbling for work in his North Carolina hometown, a man with artistic ambitions but only vague plans to realise them. It takes him years to get to art school in Chicago, then to scrounge enough cash to move to New York. By the end, he’s published to wide acclaim, winning major awards, and buying property in France. As a narrative arc, it doesn’t leave anywhere for him to go in volume two, except all around the world to meet his fans and shop for human skeletons (as a gift), and to upgrade from first class to a private jet (but only a hired one). When a fellow grocery shopper suggests how he can save money on brussels sprouts, Sedaris replies, ‘That’s okay. I’m rich.’
This could be off-putting to those who haven’t read the ‘David Copperfield Sedaris’ installment or his essays on growing up gay in the American South. Juxtaposed with the jet-setting, however, is his hobby of picking up roadside trash attired like a homeless man. That, and his love for his readers, his willingness to stay at book signings until midnight to ensure he engages with everyone. Billy Collins says writing is about the love of strangers, and this is at the core of Sedaris’s work.
What drives Snackery is a melancholy truth. Despite immense wealth and success – the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him into its exclusive fold in 2019 – Sedaris is stuck being himself. Teens whack him in the head as they pass on their bikes and he’s too cowardly to shout at them. A pool lifeguard’s scolding makes him want to cry. And despite talking to fans and strangers around the world, he lacks confidence: ‘I just can’t for the life of me figure out what to say to people.’ His youngest sister grapples with mental illness and commits suicide. His cantankerous father disapproves of him and crows about Trump. There’s blood in his urine, so a doctor sticks a camera up his penis. Life comes for you, even when you’re number one on the bestseller lists.
If starved, a humpback cricket will chew off its own legs, even though they don’t regenerate. ‘So it eats its legs, and, unable to escape danger, it promptly gets eaten itself.’ Which, Sedaris comments, seems like something he would do. What propels Snackery beyond cleverly crafted introspection and observation is all those conversations with readers and strangers. We get to contemplate the world from Sedaris’s experience and theirs. He tells a friend about someone who, back in the day, chose to defecate into his hand rather than end a call on a corded phone, and she responds, ‘Haven’t you ever shit in your hand?’ This would be the end of it for most authors, but Sedaris uses his book signing to conduct a survey on the matter, leaving us in terror of ever shaking hands again.
But then. After a hearing impaired cashier charges him 10 pence for a bag he doesn’t want, he riffs, ‘When we tell the disabled they can do anything they want in this world, don’t we mean … something, well, that can be accomplished at home?’ It’s the kind of ableist comment that would get him cancelled on social media, if he used it. And I get it, I get jokes, the humour sits in the disparity between the triviality of being charged a tiny sum for an unwanted item and the sweeping generalisation that millions of individuals should stay out of abled-bodied people’s way. Being disabled myself, it jars. Maybe that’s quibbling.
Commenting on the term Latinx, Sedaris says he’s not in favour of rebranding, conceptually. If he doesn’t want be called queer, fine, noted. This comes from the volume’s closing passage, which builds to a joke about forgiving historical figures for being a product of their time and suggests, instead, replacing statues in order to give someone new the chance ‘to scowl down at some godforsaken traffic circle’, someone like Sedaris himself. This is genuinely funny, and the Latinx commentary isn’t needed to get there. That said, Sedaris isn’t railing against the term, just pointing out that he doesn’t understand the need for it, possibly because he ‘turned old’ – 64 – and is feeling the change in his lack of understanding.
In blood spatter analysis, forensic experts look for voids, places where one would expect to see blood but none is present. Likewise in edited diaries, the question is omnipresent – if you put this in, what did you leave out? Along with approximately 300 mentions of mice, Sedaris excised many of the offensive jokes he collects, lamenting our current culture of touchiness. Still, none of the jokes included in Snackery are about gay men. Most are of the misogynist ha-ha-my-wife-is-terrible variety, though occasionally husbands get bashed for a laugh as well. These aren’t Sedaris’s jokes, but ones shared with him. I’d rather read about a mouse with a Cheeto.
Gay men come up a lot of course, often when Sedaris comments on the news. They’re targeted in shootings, attacked with boiling water, conflated with paedophiles. When Sedaris and his partner discuss their experiences of sexual assault, he reveals he was raped three times, by different men. ‘Rape is not a word I use lightly, though at the time I wouldn’t have used it at all – didn’t know I had the right to.’ It’s a poignant moment, and still he manages humour, noting that at the time, going to the police would have been ‘like complaining about the blisters the axe brought on while you were chopping up the statue of Christ’.
Maybe it’s like that with humour. Share enough jokes and you’re bound to offend someone, especially these days. Like all those statues, Sedaris is a product of a time that is slipping into history. All the while, he encourages us to be more curious about the people around us, to open ourselves up to each other even though it’s awkward and we’ll probably misstep and encounter people who dislike us or are arbitrarily cruel.
Babies are still starving someplace, but elsewhere there’s a woman who will tell us about her volunteer work with monkeys, if only we’re willing to ask.
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