Amy’s Marginalia: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

My favorite bathroom reading is humorous, self deprecatory personal essays, short ones that produce punctuated laughter and sometimes fits of giggles.  I’ve found that David Sedaris fits that bill perfectly, and his most recent book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, is his best creation to date, even better than Me Talk Pretty Someday and Holidays on Ice.

I first encountered Sedaris’ writing in The New Yorker magazine.  Many of those same essays have eventually ended up in his books, and his most recent one is no exception.  One of my favorites, called “In the Waiting Room,” is about Sedaris’ trip to the doctor in France, where he lives with his partner Hugh.  Sedaris is unsure what his French speaking nurse has instructed him to do beyond removing his clothing, and he ends up sitting in the waiting room wearing only underpants (obviously a mistranslation occurred).  Sedaris narrates his nervous thoughts as well as the imagined thoughts of the others in the room with impeccable comedic timing and phrasing.

As usual, he relates interactions both past and present between his highly dysfunctional but very lovable family members.  A loose theme of illness and death ties together many of the essays, but this might be more of a testament to Sedaris’ dark style of humor than anything else.  And in a longer than average essay, Sedaris recounts his attempt to give up smoking in Japan, rife with hilarious cultural interactions.

You won’t find Sedaris on the shelf at the Christian bookstore.  He’s thoroughly secular, unabashedly homosexual, willing to make his readers squirm at times, and unafraid to drop some foul language here and there.  Some of you might wonder how I can so willingly embrace a book that is written from such a radically different worldview than my own.  I think my main answer is that it’s really good quality writing.  But the other answer is that this guy is speaking to and from our culture, and I’m not one to insulate myself from that voice.

It probably seems strange that I rake William P. Young over the coals, a man who is writing a book for a Christian market.  But I suppose if Sedaris were to attempt to write about the trinity for the Christian market, and he were to do it poorly, I’d take issue with him too.  But I’d probably have a more enjoyable time reading his version, laughing my head off and all.

To be fair, I want to address a surprising moment in this book, a rare portrait of a Christian in Sedaris’ essays.  While swimming at the YMCA, Sedaris races a young child across the pool and doesn’t let the child win.  The kid who “looked like Hitler,” argued that Sedaris won because God let him.  An argument ensued, which eventually resulted in the child telling Sedaris that he was going to hell.  It wasn’t a pretty picture of Christians, and it wasn’t a pretty picture of God.  Sedaris comments that the kid “was planning for his afterlife.  Even worse, he was planning for mine” (318).  I see here Sedaris’ frustration with judgmental Christians confronting him outside the context of relationship with harsh and naive attacks.

Sure, he’s not painting a picture of the Christians I know and love, but I do know that there are plenty of people who behave like that out there.  I hope that when I encounter other examples of poor ways to share God’s, um, love, (if that’s what they call it), I’ll use it as a learning opportunity, so I can be a better representative of Jesus and share the gospel in the most loving way possible.


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  1. I’ve had this one on my amazon wishlist.
    Maybe I’ll get my butt out to Seattle again this Spring and I’ll pack a big suitcase of books and we can do a swap!

    AL: Why is that not surprising? You and I have shockingly similar tastes in books. Maybe I should get my butt out there first. =) But if you’re ever going to get your Pike’s Place Market brew, your chances of getting it faster might be to come here because it’s taking me forever to get back downtown! I need to use you for an excuse for a shopping day down there.

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