In the wake of The Lifespan of a Fact and the agony of Mike Daisey, The Awl has rounded up almost a dozen quotations on David Sedaris and his often slippery handling of facts. Reading them, I realized that this issue had been more or less settled in my mind since I heard him read "I Like Guys" on This American Life—a recording that begins with Sedaris claiming that his stories are "true enough."
Downhome moment of honesty or total cop-out? Or, does Sedaris' gift lie in telling the truth by mocking, attacking, and mutilating it—and signalling as much to us at every opportunity? Consider the following:
1. Chipped Beef. Naked, Sedaris' first volume of pure "essays/memoir," starts with three pages of softcore baroque fantasy: "I'm thinking of asking the servants to wax my change before placing it in the Chinese talk I keep on my dresser."
2. Shiner Like a Diamond (from Me Talk Pretty One Day). This glowing portrait of sister Amy Sedaris has her calling up their father at age twelve and "seducing [him] with lines she'd collected from Guiding Light." She also shows up to Christmas wearing the bottom half of a "fatty suit" (which just might have been the first incarnation of Jerri Blank) to get back at Mr. Sedaris for obsessing over his daughters' figures.
3. The Incomplete Quad (from Naked) Sedaris and his wheelchair-bound roommate use her disability to shoplift and prey on the pity of others. "We found it amusing and pictured these Samaritans notifying their pastor to boast, 'We saw this crippled girl and her husband and, well, we didn't have much but we did what we could.'"
4. Repeat After Me (from Dress Your Family in Courduroy and Denim). Sedaris informs his sister Lisa that one of his books has been optioned for a movie, plunging the latter into self-conscious paranoia. Later, after telling her brother about euthanizing an injured animal with a pillowcase and the tailpipe of her car, Lisa adds, "'If you ever...ever repeat that story, I will never talk to you again.'"
5. Barrel Fever (from Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays). A "story," technically, narrated by a guy named Dolph. But I think Dolph speaks for the author here: "The truly crazy are labeled so on the grounds that they see nothing wrong with their behavior. They forge ahead, lighting fires in public buildings and defecating in frying pans without the slightest notion that they are out of step with the rest of society. That, to me, is crazy."'
"The truly crazy" are Sedaris' muses, their deceptions and delusions his most cherished tools. Of course, changing facts for the sake of a good yarn isn't so much "crazy" as precisely calculated. In his defense (cf. this scathing Gawker editorial on Sedaris, Daisey and David Foster Wallace), I can only make the educated guess that his family really is batshit insane, but that he exaggerates anyway. Most of us have families like that, and yet when we talk about them, I'll bet we all find ourselves sexing up the dialogue and ramping up the drama.
Ultimately, the whole fiction/nonfiction issue seems insoluble; or maybe the solution lies in the Awl post, this sound thrashing of The Lifespan of a Fact, and anywhere else people come together, passionately and intelligently, and try to find one.