When you are engulfed in flames

a modesty seminar, a poem, kabuki,
and a safety booklet

Yet another wonderful collection by David Sedaris is

  • When you are engulfed in flames (2008).

His stories are even more trenchant if you’ve heard him reading them on BBC Radio 4. I’ll try not to give too much away.

“What I learned” evokes his imaginary days at Princeton. The “modesty seminar” for freshmen has echoes of faux Oxbridge self-deprecation:

In my time it took the form of a role-playing exercise, my classmates and I pretending to be graduates, and the teacher assuming the part of an average citizen: the soldier, the bloodletter, the whore with a heart of gold.

“Tell me, young man. Did you attend a university of higher learning?”

To anyone holding a tool or a weapon, we were trained to respond: “What? Me go to college? Whoever gave you that idea?” If, on the other hand, the character held a degree, you were allowed to say, ”Sort of,” or, sometimes, “I think so”.

And it was the next bit that you had to get just right. Inflection was everything, and it took the foreign students forever to master it.

“So where do you sort of think you went?”

“And we’d say, “Umm, Princeton?”—as if it were an oral exam, and we weren’t quite sure that this was the correct answer. […]

You had to play it down, which wasn’t easy when your dad was out there, reading your acceptance letter into a bullhorn.

I needed to temper his enthusiasm a bit, and so I announced that I would be majoring in patricide. The Princeton program was very strong back then, the best in the country, but it wasn’t the sort of thing your father could get too worked up about. Or at least, most fathers wouldn’t. Mine was over the moon. “Killed by a Princeton graduate!” he said. “And my own son, no less.”

My mom was actually jealous. “So what’s wrong with matricide?”she asked. “What, I’m not good enough to murder? You too high and mighty to take out your only mother?”

They started bickering, so in order to make peace, I promised to consider a double major.

“And how much more is that going to cost us?” they said.

I’ll leave you to read the excellent dénouement. For Sedaris, his father, and Li Manshan, see here.

In “The monster mash” he forks out on a copy of Medicolegal investigations of death,

a sort of bible for forensic pathologists. It showed what you might look like if you bit an extension cord while standing in a shallow pool of water, if you were crushed by a tractor, struck by lightning, strangled with a spiral or non-spiral telephone cord, hit with a claw hammer, burned, shot, drowned, stabbed, or feasted on by wild or domestic animals. The captions read like really great poem titles, my favourite being “Extensive Mildew on the face of a Recluse”. I stared at that picture for hours on end, hoping it might inspire me, but I know nothing about poetry, and the best I came up with was pretty lame:

Behold the recluse looking pensive!
Mildew, though, is quite extensive
On his head, both aft and fore.
He maybe shoulda got out more.

“Of mice and men” parades his social unease, featuring a bigoted cab driver (whose London counterpart is milked by Stewart Lee, e.g. here, and here).

When it comes to meeting strangers, I tend to get nervous and rely on a stash of pre-prepared stories. Sometimes they’re based on observation or hearsay, but just as often they’re taken from the newspaper.

One such clipping

concerned an eighty-one-year-old Vermont man whose home was overrun by mice. The actual house was not described, but in my mind it was two stories tall and isolated on a country road. I also decided that it was painted white—not that it mattered so much. I just thought it was a nice touch. So the retired guy’s house was overrun, and when he could no longer bear it, he fumigated. The mice fled into the yard and settled into a pile of dead leaves, whicih no doubt crackled beneath their weight. Thinking that he had them trapped, the man set the pile on fire, then watched as a single flaming mouse raced back into the basement and burned the house to the ground. […]

How could you go wrong with such a story? It was, to my mind, perfect, and I couldn’t wait to wedge it into whatever conversation presented itself.

A ride in a New Jersey cab seems to offer him a perfect pretext. But the driver is underwhelmed by the story, churlishly finding it implausible. They embark on a surreal and testy exchange, an irritated Sedaris floundering as he defends the report’s veracity:

“Isn’t no way that a mouse could cover all that distance without his flames going out. The wind would have snuffed them.”

“Well, what about that girl in Vietnam?”

Later, vindictively checking the clipping back home, his righteous anger is deflated.

In his lengthy diary of quitting smoking by going to live in Tokyo, an account of a visit to kabuki makes an interesting contrast with Clive James’s excursions into Japanese culture. Both are drôle, but whereas James seems patronising in his incomprehension, Sedaris is genuinely moved.

Four hours into Yohitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, and I wondered how I had survived all these many years without Kabuki.

The book’s title comes from a safety booklet in his hotel room, with the rubrics

  • When you check in the hotel room
  • When you find a fire
  • When you are engulfed in flames

—which leads nicely to my own script explaining the 1958 Teach Yourself Japanese.

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