Frances Wilson

How does David Sedaris get away with saying the unsayable?

The bestselling American humorist continues to record his outrageous exchanges with both family and strangers in his latest volume of diaries

How does David Sedaris get away with saying the unsayable?
David Sedaris. [Getty Images]
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A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries: Volume II

David Sedaris

Little Brown, pp. 576, £25

These aren’t diaries in the sense that Chips Channon kept diaries, or Samuel Pepys. They aren’t diaries at all, beyond the fact that each entry records an event and has a date and place attached. If a diary is a conversation with yourself, A Carnival of Snackery is a conversation with a crowd, because the observations it contains were written as material for David Sedaris’s shows.

The entries, which begin in 2003 and continue to Christmas 2020, are therefore, as Sedaris admits, over-polished, and what we hear on the page is a spoken rather than a written voice. There are many other voices besides, because the book is a record of what we say to one another when we can’t, as Sedaris says of himself, ‘figure out what to say to people’ — which describes most of us much of the time and Sedaris all of the time.

The theme is communication and miscommunication, and the material comes from exchanges overheard on public transport and exchanges between Sedaris and his drivers, readers, friends and family. Here is a conversation with Lou, his homophobic father:

Dad called last night saying, like always, ‘David? David, is that you?’ We started talking about Christmas and when I asked him what he wanted, he answered: ‘I want for you to get a goddamned colonoscopy.’ ‘So for Christmas you want for someone to shove a pipe up my ass?’ ‘You’re damn right I do.’

The entries are largely gathered as the author goes about his work, and the most striking aspect of the book is what that work involves. Who else has a life like Sedaris? He tours the world like a rock star, flitting between Bulgaria, Arizona, Dublin, Dubai and Tokyo, reading aloud from his books to audiences who then queue deep into the night for him to sign their copy, because it is now that the show really begins. Not for him the quickly scrawled signature followed by the brush-off. Sedaris asks his readers for jokes (‘I been waiting for five hours,’ says one woman. ‘How’s that for funny, asshole?’).

Back home in Sussex, Sedaris pursues his hobby of cleaning up the neighbourhood rubbish. Taking his long-handled litter-picker, he makes his way through the lanes and byways of the South Downs in search of discarded condoms and nappies. In recognition of his achievement, Horsham County Council has named a waste vehicle Pig Pen Sedaris, and he couldn’t be more proud. There’s not much difference between picking up our litter and recording the garbage we say to one another: Pig Pen Sedaris is a collector of detritus.

There is a great deal that Sedaris doesn’t say, most of which is the kind of stuff we expect to find in diaries. There is no mention, for example, of the boredom of travel — the hours waiting around, the delays, the jet lag. And beyond their petty spats, Sedaris keeps Hugh, his partner, out of the picture. After his sister Tiffany kills herself in 2013, Sedaris does not record his long-term grief. ‘It’s like the door to the rest of my family’s life has been opened,’ he says, when he hears the news, ‘and I can see that everything on the other side of it is horrible.’ The accumulation of what goes unsaid creates a melancholy undertow which reaches its climax during the pandemic, when Sedaris loses his audience and is forced to ask Hugh to applaud him when he comes into the room.

While his talent is unquestionable, the wild popularity of Sedaris is hard to explain. A Carnival of Snackery will sell more than a million copies and will be translated into the usual 25 languages, but Lou, who died earlier this year, will suffer no further indignities at the hands of his son. ‘When I die,’ Lou regretted, ‘the Sedaris name dies with me.’ ‘“Speak for yourself,” I told him. “Mine is on, like, nine million books.”’ And on the side of a garbage truck.