Friday, May 17, 2013

Funny ("Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls" by David Sedaris)

I don't remember when or how I first discovered David Sedaris, but I know that I was young, he was on the radio, and I laughed my ass off. There was something so strangely refreshing about him--assured but self-effacing, unabashedly gay and joking about it long before that was even thinkable, with a nasal voice and so-dry-its-almost-a-desert sense of humor--that I instantly had to read everything he ever wrote...which, thankfully, included dozens upon dozens of essays in both books and online magazines. And the more I read, the more I realized he was one of those rare people who manages to confront some incredibly difficult topics--racism, sex, death, and even varied bodily functions--with an oppeness that makes you realize he's more normal than any of us, simply because he's willing to embrace how abnormal he is. He understands that we are strange, off-center people living in a world of other strange, off-center people pretending to be on the straight and narrow, and that epic fantasy of ours is a never-ending punchline.*

At the time I began reading his work, Sedaris was in his mid-thirties and early forties, though some of his essays had been written when he was even younger. I followed him as the years went on--one of the few staples of my youth who didn't become boring or passe--and keep up with everything he did:  his New Yorker stories; his appearances on NPR and Letterman; and his book of modern fables, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which many of his admirers panned but I found funny enough to include in my freshmen English class.

As the years went on, though, I began to notice a change. The humorous, laugh-out-loud punch that typified his early essays--"The Youth in Asia," "Six to Eight Black Men"--drifted away, and his newer writings were funny in a less ostentatiout, more thoughtful way. Hence, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, his newest collection, which I read over two days while walking on a treadmill. Had this been one of his earlier books, this would've been a risky endeavor: one unexpected witticism about urine, dogs, or bathroom phone calls would've sent me falling off the machine, probably into a nearby piece of furniture, severely injuring myself. With this book, however, the most I mustered was a few hearty chuckles at certain places.

But that doesn't mean Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls isn't funny. In fact, it's just as sharp, insightful, and satirical as anything he's done. What's changed is something that cannot be avoided: all of us--Sedaris, his friends and family, his readers--have grown older. Humor is an artform in the right hands, and just like any skill--painting, sculpting, acting, singing, storytelling--humor changes with time. Nothing is constant, especially when wielded by someone who creates:  they gain new experiences, new insights and outlooks; their attitude towards their topics change; their  understandings mature. Sedaris has undergone the same kinds of changes, which is most notable in how he approaches stories about his father. Where the elder Sedaris used to be portrayed as an honest but quirky patriarch--"The Youth in Asia" is perhaps the best example--he's now presented as a man who loves his children but doesn't seem to know what to do with them parent-wise. In Sedaris' newest recollections, his father is a brutally honest family man who seems to feel put off by the intricacies of parenting, to the point where he swoons over a child on his son's swim team rather than David himself, sits down to dinner in his underwear, and harasses his children into getting colonoscopies. It's as though he views his children as adults-in-training rather than growing adolescents, and he can't seem to understand why they don't see the world in the same way he does. (These scenes with his father are also this collection's heart: Sedaris understands, even as he puts his father on humorous display, how much the old man has shaped his own outlook and attitude towards the world.)

Added to the mix are a few monologue written, as he points out in a very short introduction, for Forensics students. This is funny on the surface, considering how frequently Sedaris' pieces are used by high school students in competition, and even more so when you begin reading them: each is written from the point of view of someone who is repulsive, violent, and/or idiotic--a Tea Party activist, an anti-gay suburban husband, a fundamentalist grandmother--and in such a manner that it could never be read in a Forensics competition because of its harsh language and a deep satire that doesn't translate well in front of audiences.

At first, I shrugged off these short pieces as filler--after all, they're hard to identify until you're a paragraph or two into them, and they seem ill-fitted and dropped haphazardly into the book--but came to realize they're probably the most interesting parts of this collection, not because they're funnier or manage to elicit from-the-gut chuckles, but because they're Sedaris as his most blatant:  where the rest of his book--his essays--are delivered straight-faced and with nary a glance towards the subtle, these monologues are Sedaris winking at us. Yes, he's saying, we may all be strange and abnormal people trying to function as a society...but at least we're not this bad. These characters--the gullible anti-Obama activist, the hypocritical Christian, the callous and vengeful sister--are caricatures taken to hyperbolic extremes to make a point about those around us. They're wholly ridiculous and unbelievable, sure, but Sedaris knows that a caricature cannot exist without some element of truth...and sometimes, the truth about ourselves is more than we want to admit. Sometimes.

*For what it's worth, my favorite Sedaris essay is, and probably always will be, "Six to Eight Black Men," in which Sedaris highlights the ridiculousness of an entire culture's Christmas celebrations simply by describing them...and, in turn, highlights the ridiculousness of any and all Christmas celebration.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Endless ("The Long Walk" by Brian Castner)

There are thousands upon thousands of war memoirs out there--a testament to the unending richness of history but also, paradoxically, the frequency and magnitude with which we as a country go to war. These memoirs--so rich and significant, so important--can only be written by those who survive the most horrific experiences imaginable, and thus our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live--our collective history as a species--is nourished on the sweat, blood, and nightmares of soldiers. For every Born on the Fourth of July, Jarhead, or With the Old Breed, there are millions of other stories that go unwritten, untold, unpublished, and forgotten. Not every soldier will live to tell their story of war, and not every survivor of war will tell their story while alive. These stories are perhaps the most important that can be told, and each is worth its weight in ink and paper, if not more so.

But where most of these memoirs are crucial parts of history, there are very few that can also be considered good literature--that is, something that does more than tell a story from Point A to Point B, or about Persons A through E and what they did at Events 1 through 10. There are those few soldiers who are gifted enough to channel their experiences through more than pure recollection--Brian Turner's poetry collection Here, Bullet and Tim O'Brien's novel-memoir The Things They Carried are the two examples that come immediately to mind--but when they do, it adds even more depth to an already profound story.

Brian Castner's The Long Walk is an example of that kind of book. An EOD technician, Castner moves between his experiences defusing IEDs during the Iraq War and struggling to re-acclimate to civilian life once his tour of duty has ended. Memories of he and his team approaching strange, dangerous contraptions in the sweltering Iraqi weather, their bodies weighed down by 80 pounds of gear while unseen forces shoot at them, move suddenly into Castner swimming through 12-packs of beer on the couch, going between the floors of the local VA hospital, and taking yoga classes in the hopes of ridding himself of the spider-like "Crazy" that has nested in his brain. He runs, he is tested by doctors, a bomb explodes, the yoga teacher twists herself in front of him, he steps in liquefied intestines, he takes his son to school, a phone rings in that emptiness of night, he dresses his son for hockey, he is insubordinate, he is diagnosed, he is sane, he is insane. It all moves together as one, as though his time in war and time in peace were melting together as one until he is a man in both worlds and neither world at the same time. His everyday life is filled with the chaos of war--he has an imaginary gun with him at all times, and his eyes scout for men who seem suspiciously familiar--while his memories are dominated by endless hours of waiting for IEDs to be reported, for his team to approach and defuse, of the camaraderie and sense of purpose he felt while the world around him fell away into thunder and fire.

This balance is what gives Castner's memoirs its literary depth and makes it a rarity among the countless other books to come out of the last decade of war. Were this book stripped of its cover and any biographical information on the author, you'd be tempted to think of it as a clever novel of sorts--a look at how, as Castner's grandmother-in-law tells his wife, war will kill the men it saves and send back someone new. There would be unfair comparisons to The Hurt Locker, some discussion of how expertly the novelist avoids one Hollywood-war-movie cliche after another--the nighttime scene in which a lowly pigeon brings forth a discussion about what the men will do when they return home is formulaic and saccharine, the critics would say in one voice--and a general sense that this writer, though promising in his skills, has watched Saving Private Ryan one too many times. But it's obviously real, still fresh and alive in Castner's mind--even his wife says his ability to remember even the most inconsequential of details is both amazing and frustrating--and it's a testament to Castner's skills as a writer that, more often than not, the reader questions what they're reading--the outlandishness, the carnage, the extremeness of all that's written down. After all, what better compliment to give a memoirist of war--and what darker condemnation to set upon the homeland reader--than to write about the world as it is and find resistence from those who find safety behind sanitized fantasies of how the world isn't. "This can't be real," the reader tells themselves, searching the cover for reassurance that this is just a novel, a story, a fabrication. "No one could survive this. This can't be happening now, not in my lifetime, to my friends and neighbors."

It is, and if the shelves of libraries and bookstores and archives are any proof, it will forever be.