I feel something of an obligation to acknowledge up front that I hated Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris’s collection of fictionalized memoir-essays, and that I feel neither sympathy nor empathy toward the writer.
The writing mirrors the cultural backdrop against which it is set. It’s crude, cartoonish, and self-obsessed. The dialogue is unsubtle and abrasive (“Clock him on the snot locker and he’ll go down like a ton of bricks.”) and the emotions described juvenile and exaggerated.
The narrative tension in the book stems from the war raging between the author’s extreme selfishness and his pervasive sense of shame. At times, he comes across like Golum, or the book reads like one of those sit-com fantasy sequences where the actor plays the character’s inner demon arguing with his better angel.
Mr. Sedaris recounts an incident wherein his sister Lisa tells him a personal story that he thought was funny but that was emotionally difficult for her:
I instinctively reached for the notebook I keep in my pocket and she grabbed my hand to stop me. “If you ever,” she said, “ever repeat that story, I will never talk to you again.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “The story’s really funny, and, I mean, it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it.”
And then the better angel writes:
Your life, your privacy, your occasional sorrow—it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it. Is this the brother I always was, or the brother I have become?
Perhaps because he was convicted by this thought, or perhaps simply because he thought it imprudent to display himself as an even bigger jerk than he already does, Mr. Sedaris describes but does not provide the details of his sister’s story.
The internal struggle revealed here, unlike the many of the weird situations he chronicles, is fairly universal, and the book could offer some insights into this aspect of the human condition.
Except that nothing Mr. Sedaris writes can be trusted. He is open that he embellishes, that his concern is more for the story than for the truth.
Toward the end of the book, he writes about a ridiculous exchange at a dinner party that he and his same-sex companion Hugh hosted in Paris. He’d had a volunteer job for one day, and tells the guests, “My boss has a rubber hand.” Then Hugh argues with him that the hand is really plastic, and they have a spat in front of the company about this. Mr. Sedaris whines, “One of our joint New Year’s resolutions was to stop bickering in front of company, but he was making it really hard.” It may not be overly generous to give Mr. Sedaris the benefit of the doubt that he realizes how infantile that sounds and is including it for effect.
But then he writes:
The guests were getting uncomfortable, but I didn’t care. Technically, Hugh was right, … but we weren’t in a courtroom and there was no punishment for a little exaggeration. … Instead of backing me up, he’d made me out to be a liar, and, oh, I hated him for that.
These sentences reflect the attitudes on display throughout the book. The language is adolescent in its hyperbole; the author acknowledges his disregard for those to whom he has social and moral responsibilities, and he blames someone else for making him look like what he is, a liar.