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When You Are Engulfed In Flames

by Rob Friesel

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris at Amazon.comWhen You Are Engulfed in Flames is a solid ★★★★1 and damn near close to ★★★★★ that we’ll settle for ★★★★½. But then again, I’m a serious Sedaris fiend.

Granted, if you’re reading this, it’s probably because you were curious what I thought of the collection. By now, you (dear reader) have already made up your mind about David Sedaris and have either worked your way through this collection2 or else long ago discarded him, irrelevant as an expended filter tip.

So if you find yourself in the former category then by all means, read on.When You Are Engulfed In Flames makes Sedaris’ previous collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, seem like a disaster, a complete train wreck.  Which is unfair because I think that Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is a strong collection with some exemplary essays. And also because I get the feeling that it was a more personal werk for him, that he’s a bit more exposed and vulnerable in those essays3.

Thematically, When You Are Engulfed In Flames is a reprise of Me Talk Pretty One Day — highly focused on language and style, on the humanity of humiliation and (to echo some other reviewers) those dark places where our sentimentality tends to get the best of us. But it’s a counterpoint melody to Me Talk Pretty One Day — arrogant where the other was modest, chagrined where the other took delight.

Structurally, this collection is an echo of Naked, 4 though perhaps a bit more mature.  As I wrote of DFW’s Consider the Lobster, the essays are arranged well, jokes from earlier essays recurring, serving to inform your later tittering.  That said, the individual essays seem to follow a rhythm that is new for Sedaris. If this were an elementary school music class, I would say that his earlier essays have a rhyme scheme that goes ABAB, these are turned more toward ABCA.

It seems a cop-out to recommend this collection.  Those that are already turned on to Sedaris are unlikely to be disappointed; those that didn’t much care for him in the first place won’t find anything to change their opinions.  Anyone with previous exposure is likely to see symptoms of his previous werks; I suppose the difference is whether you carry the antibodies5?

A version of this review originally appeared on

  1. On the scale. []
  2. Or at the very least put it high on your “to-read” list. []
  3. Not that his writing isn’t exposed and vulnerable in the first place but still. []
  4. The way that the early essays build upon each other, culminating in that epochally long stranger-in-a-strange-land type story. []
  5. Regardless of the mutation? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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