As we all know, David Sedaris' prose is opaque. What do we learn about liberal America's favorite humorist by reading him…other than pretty much everything? A book like Kevin Kopelson's new Sedaris feels rather redundant not only because it relies on frequent and long excerpts ("I'll use both extensive quotation and paraphrase—something, I confess, my own students aren't allowed") but because it does not provide much analysis; rather than looking at what Sedaris means in the context of contemporary America, it looks at what the humorist tells us about himself. As if we didn't get enough of that from an author who can crank out a 3,000-page New Yorker essay about changing a lightbulb.
Kopelson, who teaches English at the University of Iowa, acknowledges on the first page of his hagiography that his subject may not be all that innovative: "Not that Sedaris is the only satirist to deprecate himself. The British poets John Donne (1572–1631) and Alexander Pope (1688–1744), for example, acknowledge their own failings along with those of primary targets." Donne and Pope? I'd have picked Phyllis Diller and early Woody Allen, but never mind.
It gets worse on the second page, which indicates that Kopelson may well have misread his subject's entire oeuvre: He posits that Sedaris is not a "cynical" satirist but a "sanguine" one, and that "the sanguine satirist likes people." Actually, David Sedaris only likes himself, while pretending to mock his own shortcomings. He looks down on everybody, especially his own family. But Kopelson's underlying point, one never confessed, is that Sedaris grants others license to indulge in constant navel-gazing and self-congratulatory onanism.
Sedaris is what happens when egos collide. Kopelson comes across as a typical superfan whose devotion ultimately is a way to express self-obsession. The book is "autobiographical in that I'm now dealing with my mother in print," he admits in one of his many howlers. Elsewhere, he explains that for Sedaris he modestly toned down his usual approach "It's time, that is, to renounce a certain style—a certain selfish virtuosity."
As one of the Heathers put it: "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw."