Book Review by Gerard Brown:
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Little Brown and Company, 2000, 272 pp., $22.95.
With his fourth book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, essayist and frequent NPR contributor David Sedaris cements the title of man-you'd-least-want-to-invite-to-dinner. Who would willingly try to make cocktail party banter with anyone so insightful or incisive? Got a funny family story? Sedaris has dozens. Pithy travel anecdote? Don't go there. Droll comment on the state of contemporary education? Forget it. On a bewildering array of subjects, Sedaris again and again proves himself to be a curmudgeon for a new generation.
What's interesting about the book is the way it circles around the loss of language and the question of Sedaris' own facility with writing. He begins with an essay about expanding his vocabulary as a means of thwarting a speech therapist. To avoid having his lisping "s" corrected, Sedaris builds a precocious vocabulary of synonyms (or equally evocative alternative terminology, he might say.) He writes about his brother and the curious terms of endearment which have evolved between him and their father, clearly relishing the challenge of punctuating such dialog as; "Certain motherfuckers think they can fuck with my shit, but you can't kill the Rooster. You might can fuck him up sometimes, but, bitch, nobody kills the motherfucking Rooster. You know what I'm saying?" From its first pages, the book proposes language as a marker and suggests that the inability to express oneself articulately is tantamount to idiocy.
Sedaris' fear of the implications of this proposition becomes clear in the second half of the book, where he concentrates on his experiences living in France and trying to come to grips with the language. French nouns threaten to reduce him to an infantile state, and Sedaris moans that, "It's a pretty grim world when I can't even feel superior to a toddler." His solution – to pluralize everything – has the kind of comic force that comes from desperation, and it buys our sympathy. Reading "Me Talk Pretty One Day," it's possible to imagine getting worn out by 270-plus pages of wit, much of it predated on petty criticisms and delivered in an unabashedly narcissistic tone. Fortunately, Sedaris is as relentlessly critical of himself as he is of others. By the time he recounts the wooing of his boyfriend – a Machiavelli-meets-Melrose Place tale which, taken alone, might qualify him as a complete creep – Sedaris has cataloged his own faults with such precision that his behavior is easily dismissible (if not curiously forgivable) because he's effectively named so many of the feelings and impressions which many of us cannot begin to describe, let alone admit to sharing. Accomplishing the time honored trick of giving voice to feelings we cannot name, Sedaris earns his readers' respect while risking our revulsion.
Reading these short essays is like watching a high wire act in which an acrobat willing saddles himself with an unwieldy and probably unnecessary burden…say, a player piano. Sedaris romps through writing with graceful ease and, even when he stumbles, manages to eke laughable music out the torturously narrow confines of his French skills. Despite the recurrent theme of inarticulate communication that permeates this collection, it's likely the reader will be the only one at a loss for words at its conclusion.
Artist Gerard Brown is an independent critic and curator living in Chicago .