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07.02.08

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Phaedra

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

By Matthew Craggs


Humorists are the literary equivalent of standup comedians and cartoonists. Their styles range from satire and witty observations of the world around us to simple, funny stories. David Sedaris falls into the latter category. In his latest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris weaves the reader through many a convoluted tale that always seems to double back on itself like a tangled Slinky. Unfortunately, unraveling the tangle alternates between a satisfying conclusion and a frustrating journey. In the past, Sedaris has relied heavily on his family to provide comic fodder, but Flames finds our humble narrator stepping away from home and traveling the globe struggling with languages, social awkwardness and the self-imposed burdens of raising a spider in Paris. The anecdotes display the world through Sedaris' eyes—a point of view that even the most seasoned psychiatrist would describe as "shit-crazy." For Sedaris, simple events turn into spiraling episodes of self-doubt that end in rage, confusion and fears of surviving on raw meat. When Sedaris gets separated from his boyfriend in "Keeping Up," the strengths and weaknesses of Flames are never more obvious. The story opens with a bickering couple in Paris, and while it does segue logically to the rest of the piece, it is ultimately irrelevant. Once Sedaris moves on to his inability to keep up with Hugh as they travel through a zoo, we see a disturbed vulnerability that begs for our compassion. Closing the story with the weighted use of the word "lost," Sedaris' point is heavy and poignant, but it could have come a lot sooner. Too often, the stories, even the sentences that Sedaris drowns in commas like fleas on a dog, lack structure. If Sedaris had cut back on the mental masturbation and focused his insights, readers wouldn't spend most of the book being jerked around. As it is, Flames feels like you're reading Sedaris' daily journal—a little voyeuristic, usually funny but too often an account of stuff you really don't care about. (By David Sedaris; Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages; $25.99 hardback)


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