As I may have mentioned—did I mention this?—I’m a great advocate of lying when writing. In contrast to a good book of fictional lies, a genre that has become fairly popular in recent years is the memoir, in which someone writes about their life. The memoir is similar to an autobiography, though I believe there is a difference. Since I’m writing here about literature, I do not need real information in order to have an opinion. Or come to think of it, that’s true of all subjects.
So…the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is the purpose of the book. The purpose of an autobiography is to tell us about the life of the person who is the subject. It’s the facts that matter. In some cases the book may not be especially well written, or it might even be badly written, to tell us how a sullen, mistreated kid turned into the rapper Eminem.
A memoir also tells us about someone’s life, but that is not at all the purpose of the book. Memoirs these days are even written by people we never heard of. Instead, a memoir is meant to entertain. Some memoir writers, aware that entertainment is the real purpose, are afraid that their actual life may come off as a little dull, so they start making things up.
The most well-known example recently is James Frey, whose “memoir” turned out to be largely fictional (a pack of lies). Why didn’t he just write fiction to start with? Probably because there is a big fad for memoirs right now, and he thought he wouldn’t have to work as hard to publish it. Both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times have published lists of memoirs in which the writers pretend they are telling the truth but are not.
A memoir writer who has been very popular recently, and telling the truth to my knowledge, is David Sedaris. In a book with the vaguely provocative title Naked (not a very interesting title, really, but it does have that hint of sexuality), Sedaris never forgets that his purpose is to make the writing and the story interesting. He knows he is supposed to entertain, and he does, as with the chapter title “Dinah, The Christmas Whore”.
Because David Sedaris first became famous for a long satirical piece he read on National Public Radio, about a Christmas job in New York dressed as a department store elf, his reputation is that he is satirical and funny. And he is. On the back cover of Naked the publisher plays on this, with marketing text and quotes calling the book “hilarious” and “hilariously enteraining”.
Which is also seriously misleading. There are moments when the book is very funny, though usually in a sardonic, dark way. If the publisher had told the truth, however, that there are also moments in this book that are creepy, weird, and even sad, it would not have fit the reputation Sedaris has. Nevertheless, he is always interesting, a writer very skilled with words, images, and use of detail. Many writers have those skills, but what Sedaris has in addition that makes him different—at least in his writing—is a unique view of the world.
In part he sees the world as an outsider, which might be attributed to being young, or smart, or gay, or cynical, or artistic, take your pick. This feeling of being an outsider is sometimes expressed as cocky arrogance, as when he comments on the mall Santa: “…the obese, retired school principal who sat on his ass in the mall’s sorry-looking North Pole.” At other times, however, there is a forlorn quality to his outsider status, as though he would have liked to fit in more, and Sedaris has no hesitation at turning his satire sharply on himself. When he is trying to escape from someone while hitchhiking, he thinks of where he might get a weapon: “Make a spear, that’s it, a spear! I’d seen them in the souvenir shops, decorated with beads and feathers. The Indians made spears, didn’t they, or no, maybe I was thinking of tomahawks…”
In general the book takes a twisted, often cynical, view of life, but told with a sharp and interesting style:
- “Every few hours the altar boys would roam the aisles with smoldering tankards of incense, and one by one the congregation, woozy from fasting, would drop like flies.”
- “I might have arrived from a militant Muslim nation with no problem, but something about New York seemed to rub people the wrong way.”
- “I had seen this look only twice before: once when she was caught in the path of a charging, rabid pig and then again when I had told her I wanted a peach-colored velveteen blazer with matching slacks.”
The structure of this book is a series of 17 chapters, each a kind of separate essay, taking us through Sedaris’ life from boyhood to a few years out of college. No one mentioned in the book escapes the satire, and at times it is laugh-out-loud funny, but descriptions of his family and acquaintances, like his views of the world, can have a razor edge.