Nonfiction in Sheep’s Clothing

I consider myself unqualified for everything. Even as a parent I usually feel like I am just pretending to be in charge. All the other kids have real mothers, and I am just a babysitter—the kind that you might not call back unless you were desperate. The kind that will definitely eat all your food, and if you stay out late enough, she might drink that bottle of wine you bought on your last romantic getaway to Napa. I don’t have a good excuse for floundering; it isn’t like I got pregnant as a teenager or after sex-change surgery. I was 30 years old when I had my first kid. I was married, owned a home, and had good insurance. Feeling inadequate just comes more natural.

When I was single, I would think, I am probably not good enough to be your girlfriend, even if you did call back. Now that I am married, I am positive that I am unqualified to be a wife. I see all these other women with their mother-in-laws on speed dial and their genuine supportiveness, and I know they are good wives. Even the GPS lady is a better wife than I am. When my husband makes a wrong turn, she doesn’t say, “I TOLD you to go 800 more feet, jack nuts.” No. She just calmly asks him to make a series of left turns until he is right back where he started. I imagine her winking at me through the dash, “See, he doesn’t even have to know he was wrong.”

As I was reading David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and I noticed a trend about his fictional work, which he includes as intercalary chapters to his nonfiction essays, I thought I should write about it. Then I reminded myself that I am unqualified for such a task, but then, THEN I said, “Listen, jack nuts, if there is anything you are qualified to do, it is to write a fake review of Sedaris’s new book.” It was a good feeling—a warm blanket of useless qualification.

His fiction seems worth writing about because it is often snubbed. New York Times reviewer David Carr stated in his review of Sedaris’s new book, “His attempts to write complete essays in another voice do nothing for me,” and then he calls two of the fictional snippets, “both affected and unaffecting.” Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is the first book to include fictional essays since Barrel Fever, published in 1994. Barrel Fever includes twelve “stories” and only four nonfiction essays, but is most known as the book that includes the elf essay. “Santaland Diaries” is funny, yes. Sedaris’s perspective of his time spent working as a Macy’s elf is hysterical even. However, the fictional essays in Barrel Fever are far more provocative. (I prefer the term fictional essays because Sedaris’s fiction resembles the format of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” more so than the traditional short story). Sedaris is much darker in fiction, and often his fiction writing is just his nonfiction cloaked in a dark veil or maybe a bloody ski mask.

One of my favorite essays by Sedaris is the fictional, “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!” in Barrel Fever. The Christmas letter is narrated by a suburban housewife named Jocelyn and sums up a year that includes the arrival of her husband’s twenty-two-year-old Vietnamese daughter, the teenage pregnancy of her own daughter, and the subsequent tragedy that follows, including the death of the new grandbaby. It parodies the family Christmas letter and contains many exclamation points!!!!!!! By the end it seems that Jocelyn is not only narrow-minded but a maniacal killer. It is ridiculous, tragic, hilarious, and much more political than Sedaris’s nonfiction. Jocelyn is fucking crazy, but she is also a caricature of a real type of person, which makes her profoundly troubling. Jocelyn wishes her readers,

The Merriest of Christmas Seasons from the entire Dunbar family: Clifford, Jocelyn, Kevin, Jacki, Kyle, and Khe Sahn!!!!!
Some of you are probably reading this and scratching your heads over the name “Khe Sahn.” “That certainly doesn’t fit with the rest of the family names,” you’re saying to yourself. “What did those crazy Dunbars get themselves a Siamese cat?”
You’re close.

Jocelyn continues, describing Khe Sahn’s skimpy wardrobe and her failure to speak English, “She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words ‘Daddy,’ ‘Shiny,’ and ‘Five dollar now.’”

(Please read this essay immediately)

In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, the fictional narrators (also a bunch of crazies) collectively reflect the opposition. Read as a complete book with chapters, not as a collection of individual essays (some fiction, some non), the fictional voices serve as a friendly reminder of what else is out there. A reminder that the world-at-large is not a Sedaris essay.

I like to read about the life of a middle-aged homosexual man, even the romantic parts and the parts that speak warmly of Europe. However, not everyone shares my views, maybe even readers that are fond of Sedaris’s big ticket essays like “Santaland Diaries” or “Six to Eight Black Men.” The new book has a compelling vulnerability to it. In “A Guy Walks into a Bar Car” Sedaris tinkers with romance—in his own way—by recalling a romantic encounter on a train in Italy, emotionally describing his one who got away, “Bashir got off with his three big suitcases and became a perennial lump in my throat.” The train ride with Bashir is starkly paralleled with another encounter on a train that was messy, awkward, and involved a hefty mix of vodka and pot.

In contrast, the fictional “I Break for Traditional Marriage” is narrated by a man who shoots his wife and daughter because “if homosexuality is no longer a sin, then who is to say that murder is?” And it is miraculously funny. A tender story about love on a train is the type of writing that can be taught, but a hilarious mock essay about murder and bigotry—that is just natural born talent. At one point, the narrator listens to a right-wing call-in show where the host and a caller debate whether one could now marry a pizza, “‘There’s no reason I can think of why you couldn’t marry a pizza,’ he said. ‘Hell, you could probably even marry a mini-pizza, one of those ones made from an English muffin, if you felt like it.’”

The fictional essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls fill in the blanks that the nonfiction, which depicts an idyllic world of success, life partners, and world travel, leaves untold. The intermingling of nonfiction and nonfiction-in-disguise gives the new book more depth than his old stuff. But who am I to say? He is David Sedaris. He can write whatever the fuck he wants. (And I can continue to like it.)

David Carr’s review is from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, online edition, published on May 17, 2003.

Sedaris’s Barrel Fever was originally published in 1994 by Little, Brown. The excerpts here are from the 2009 ebook edition.

The excerpts from Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls are from the 2013 first edition published by Little, Brown.

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MILF

This is my son a few days after he was born. He did not weigh 60 pounds like I was expecting, actually he still doesn't.

This is my son a few days after he was born. He did not weigh 60 pounds like I was expecting, actually he still doesn’t.

This summer my kids will be seven and five. Even though it has been years, there are still days when I feel thankful that I am not pregnant, and then I chug a pot of coffee, shoot some tequila, put on my tightest pants, and hop on a roller coaster—just because I can. I know pregnancy is supposed to be a beautiful time, and I should have been grateful, but I felt more like I was serving a sentence. I love my children, I even like them; I just prefer them outside my body. My second pregnancy was easier to endure than the first because I had a toddler, and pregnancy made us sort of the same. We both liked to take long naps in the middle of the day, we were both constantly sober, we wore a similar style of elastic pant, and sometimes we even both peed on ourselves.

Now as my kids get older and parenting becomes increasingly challenging—babies are a breeze—I think back to my pregnant self, taking naps under the desk at my office, spending Saturdays on the couch watching Rock of Love marathons, and I think, what the hell was my problem? Maybe the actual pregnancy had nothing to do with my frustration. Maybe with the first pregnancy I was dealing with the loss of my independence, the acceptance of a great responsibility, and the disintegration of life as I knew it. Once my son was born, it all felt right and even worth it, but the nine months of stewing almost did me in.

The following is a reflection of a first-time, glowing (sweating, really, especially under the boobs) pregnant lady:

In my mind, growing another human life requires a lot of calories, and a large portion of those calories should be in cake-form and eaten in bed while watching reality television. My basic pregnancy diet theory was based on the idea that by not drinking alcohol, I would automatically be consuming fewer calories, so I could eat anything I want. This proved untrue pretty early in the pregnancy, as I could no longer fit into my regular clothes minutes after I peed on a stick. Once I realized I was not going to be one of those girls who looked like she just swallowed a basketball and that I would be more like one of those girls who looked like she swallowed an entire basketball team, I told my elastic waist pants to hold on tight because they were in for a wild ride.

I gained the full 25 pounds of recommended weight in the first six weeks. Other than the extreme gigantism, the pregnancy was going well. I was only sick for the first few months, and I felt pretty agile, like for instance if I dropped my piece of late night cake, I could easily roll off the bed and retrieve it. I read all the pregnancy books and subscribed to the weekly pregnancy email updates. (Your baby is now the size of a hamster! You are now the size of Australia!) I was inappropriately nonchalant about the labor process, and even once compared it to training for a sport, like a volleyball match, which might have been a valid comparison if during the match I accidentally swallowed the ball and then had to volley it over the net from my vagina.

I was so ready to be done with the pregnancy, to meet this baby that everyone had been talking about, that I was willing to go through any means necessary to get the job done. If the doctors told me that in order to get the baby out they were going to send a team of ninjas to my house to attack me, probably right in the middle of my favorite meal, I would have said, “Sign me up!”

Finally after eating my way through three seasons, my due date arrived. There it was circled on the calendar, the day that had been etched in my mind since my first doctor’s appointment 67 pounds ago. Seven days later, I checked into the hospital for an induction. I put on a backless gown—finally some room to breathe—and then settled in for some heavy breathing and gripping the sides of my rocking chair. I paid attention in labor class. I saw the videos. I knew what to do. I let the nurse know that I would not be getting the epidural, and she was polite enough not to laugh, but did suggest that if I changed my mind I should let her know as soon as possible. I had a killer mix CD, so I was sure I would be fine. A few hours later, as I rocked faster and faster with my husband staring at me from a nearby chair with blood coming from his eyes, I suggested he get the nurse and see what she could do. I was not against any measure, like euthanasia for instance.

Eventually, I got an epidural. Then about two hours later, one of the most exciting moments of my life happened: I gave birth to my son. He was perfect. He looked like a miniature version of my husband, which was a little weird, but adorable. I, however, did not look like a miniature version of anything. In some of the photos from the hospital I look like a really fat Sally Jesse Raphael, aided by the fact that while I was pregnant my vision got really blurry, and I had to get glasses to see my food.

Princess Fiona by Day

I am currently reading-slash-devouring Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In one chapter, Lamott describes her use of the topic of school lunches as a go-to writing launch. Lamott includes her own first draft on the subject and cleverly suggests, “The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were okay.” Lamott continues, aptly narrowing her focus to the importance of the sandwich: “Your sandwich was the centerpiece.”

I thought about my own school lunch, and the sandwich that often appeared as its centerpiece. My mother used to pack a salami and mustard sandwich on . . . wait for it . . . cinnamon-raisin bread. If this sandwich was any indication of the well-being of my family, then obviously we were in deep shit. Other kids knew it, and they would comment that my sandwich was “grody,” and I only made matters worse for myself by eating every last bite— even the crust. I remember that my mom also used to put Coke (secretly generic cola, wink, wink) in my thermos. It would explode and spray brown liquid all over me and my delicious sandwich.

Writing about my sandwich-of-shame reminded me of another memory from the elementary school cafeteria. There was a girl from another class who ate at the same time as us, and other kids in my class—multiple kids—would mention how this girl looked just like me. I found this shocking, and I failed to see the resemblance. Now, I don’t usually like to criticize children about their appearance, but given that this girl is now an adult and I have already mentioned that she supposedly looked just like me, I feel like I have some leeway. If they wanted to cast an ogre on Little House on the Prairie, then this girl would have been a perfect fit. She had long, frizzy, colonial-style hair; she wore handmade, floor-length flowered dresses, had no chin to speak of and was doubly burdened with big bones and pudginess.

I remember defending myself and explaining that we looked nothing alike, but the other kids would just look at her, then look at me and clearly reiterate, “Yep, you are like twins.” I would study her to find some redeeming quality while simultaneously smoothing down my hair with salami grease and shrinking in my chair to appear daintier. Today, I have the image of this overgrown milkmaid of a girl etched into my mind. When I picture myself in elementary school, it is usually her that I see.

I wonder if Angelina Jolie questions herself when people compare her to the Octomom? Does she look at the Octomom and worry if it is a true representation of how the world sees her? With that pairing it is like the Octomom is the pre-drinks version and Angelina is the two-in-the-morning beer goggles version. I am sure Angelina knows exactly which version she is, but Octomom might not be so sure. Maybe Octomom thinks she has a shot at being the hotter doppelganger. As for me, I remember sitting in the elementary school cafeteria with my salami and mustard on cinnamon-raisin bread, brown stains all down the front of my shirt, fully confident that I was the beautiful beer goggles version.

****Discussion of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird taken from the First Anchor Books edition, 1995.