My thoughts on “When you are engulfed in flames”

The book ‘When you are engulfed in flames’ by David Sedaris is a collection of essays which are semi-autobiographical in nature. As the blurb mentions, Sedaris uncovers the absurdity just below the surface of everyday life. However, what piqued my interest was the cover of the book which is ‘Skeleton’ by Vincent Van Gogh. The art piece portrays a skull smoking a cigarette. I had seen the painting in the Netherlands and the first thought that came to me was the contradictory theme of killing oneself despite being dead already. The painting radiates sarcasm and this threw me off as his other paintings such as ‘Sunflowers’ are more earnest. 

 

 In the book, Sedaris’ essays revolve around the painting ‘Skeleton’. What struck me is how the essays are actually different interpretations of the painting as reflected in his own life. Interestingly, Van Gogh was a heavy smoker all his life like Sedaris, and both of them struggled to give up their addiction. 

 

Among the essays, the most straight forward theme is that smoking kills. In the last essay, ‘The Smoking Section’ Sedaris discusses how throughout his life, starting from his childhood, he was a smoker. He talks about how “It wasn’t the smoke but the smell” that bothered him at first when both of his sisters would smoke in the house. In comparison, his room was “clean and orderly”. However, when he was fourteen he was peer pressured by his “handsome roommate”  to “lie back while I blow smoke into your mouth”. This kickstarted his addiction and the next twenty-three years of his life revolved around getting high on pot. The essay describes in Sedaris’ usual humourous way, his journey to Kyoto where he spends forty-five days trying to break his addiction. In the end, he essentially turns over a new leaf, by picking up trash whenever he sees it. However, he refuses to touch cigarette butts because of the fear of relapsing into smoking again. 

 

Though this straight-forward interpretation of the painting was interesting, what I found more interesting was the second parallel that I found: we all have bad habits. Just as Van Gogh shows a skeleton which forms the basic structure of every human being, Sedaris also shows the same bad habits which might exist in all characters. This is most obvious in the essays “Of Mice and Men” as well as “Town and Country”. In the latter, Sedaris’ narrates the story of his taxi ride to his sister’s house. In the scene, Sedaris gets frustrated at his driver as he keeps repeating the phrase “fucky-fuck” which irritates him because he wasn’t enjoying the topic of the conversation which was the driver’s sexual experiences. Ironically, as Sedaris is in his sister’s home, they soon begin to discuss Beastiality in sexual life. Which by the end of the essay makes him realise that there is no real difference between him and the driver. Similarly “Of Mice and Men” describes another taxi ride where Sedaris talks about stereotypes. In the beginning, the taxi driver remarks “about what snobs and cowards the French are”. Sedaris criticizes him for being racially discriminatory only to realise that he was equally as discriminatory as the driver in the next conversation he had with a friend. 

 

Through a different perspective in the essay “The Understudy” Sedaris describes how his babysitter reflects his mother. He specifically describes how torturous he was towards him and his siblings, “she made us scratch her back until our arms almost fell off”. However, by the time his parents return from their weeks getaway and the children complain but their mother refuses to believe them and dismisses them, “I don’t believe that for a minute”. Thus, the babysitter is actually just the understudy of the mother as they have very similar character traits and don’t really care for the children. 

 

Another interesting parallel between “Skeleton” and Sedaris is the theme of accepting the harsh realities of life and finding beauty in the seamier side of life. This is specifically shown in the essay “That’s Amore” which begins with an opening quote describing dead rats in New York City, “flattened by cabs, and I’d bend over the body, captivated by the foulness of it”. Sedaris clearly finds a reflection of the dead rat’s character in his elderly neighbour, Helen. Helen’s character apparently seems very unattractive as she loses her temper, abuses at random and is overly critical of everyone around her, “2 young men + 1 bedroom – ugly panelling = fags”, she says.  When Sedaris gets Helen a gift, she exclaims, “Take it away, I don’t want it”, rather than appreciating the efforts taken by Sedaris, she dismisses him and pushes him away. Nevertheless, the pair have a close bond as at some point, Helen calls Sedaris over to “rub in some Tiger Balm for her” after she has a bad fall, and Sedaris does this willingly, showing their closeness. For me, this essay is very similar to Van Gogh’s artwork, for example, his collection of “Sunflower” paintings where Vincent highlights the beauty in unappreciated parts of life – wilting flowers which were not known for their beauty.  

 

 Lastly, another of Sedaris’ interesting ideas which revolves around the painting is turning tradition on its head. Van Gogh initially made the artwork while he was attending art classes in Antwerp. It was common practice then to use live humans as models in order to understand human anatomy. He felt as though the classes were boring and taught him nothing. Thus, in order to override the traditional method of painting people, Vincent began painting skulls and skeletons. The same kind of ironical idea is reflected in the book as Sedaris similarly uses his gay relationship with Hugh to thwart the conventional stereotype of LGBTQ relationships. In the essay “Keeping Up” he depicts through a description of him and his partner in Australia how their problems are similar to the problems in a heterosexual relationship. 

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