Too many pancakes: David Sedaris’ diaries don’t do him any favours
The first in the author’s volume reads like a stream-of-consciousness over 25 years
David Sedaris has released his first volume of diaries over the period of 1977 to 2002. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Theft by Finding: Diaries: Volume One
The IHOP should really have a plaque to American-born author David Sedaris outside one of their many restaurants. The IHOP chain, which stands for the International House of Pancakes, features prominently in the first quarter or so of Sedaris’s first volume of his diaries. As a young man, and frequently broke, he spent a lot of time shored up in one of their restaurants, drinking bottomless coffee and honing his ear for a good story by listening in on what was going on around him.
In his introduction, Sedaris says that he doesn’t “really expect anyone to read this from start to finish”. So although the text is linear and chronological, you’re invited to “dip in and out of” it. The period runs from 1977 to 2002, and the second volume will bring us up to 2017.
As Sedaris kept his diary in some 156 notebooks, what’s reproduced here is his heavily edited version. Even so, at 514 pages, this first volume is a lot of Sedaris in a pretty rough form. You can see this comparison most clearly in the entries when he writes about working as an elf in SantaLand in Macy’s in 1990 and 1991. The resulting SantaLand essay was his breakout success, with Ira Glass broadcasting it on NPR. But the short diary entries on his elf training, while amusing (Sedaris is never dull), are nothing on his hilarious, evergreen essay about the experience.
So what we have is a kind of stream-of-consciousness Sedaris over 25 years, interwoven with brief entries that are included only to record a significant moment in history. As in the two-sentence entry for July 3rd, 1981, which says, “There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men. I heard about it on the radio tonight.”
Obviously, the challenge for Sedaris in putting this tome together was what narrative he created when he edited the collections of diaries. Some of what he left in becomes very repetitive. There’s a record of his drug-taking, drinking and getting stoned. Along with a record of dieting and becoming less stoned and more responsible. Unfortunately, much of this just isn’t very interesting.
When Sedaris’s deeper observations do glint into light, they are worth slogging though entire months and years that all seem to blur together. In January 1989, he’s several months into a teaching job in Chicago; a job he took up with hopeful enthusiasm for his students and boundless energy. On January 17th, 1989, he writes, “Something has changed, and now, when I look at my students, I see only people who are going to eat up my time.” There are novels that contain less distilled insight.
The entries I enjoyed most were the fascinating and bitchy accounts of Sedaris learning to speak French through the late 1990s, while living in France with his partner, Hugh. This might be because I haven’t read Me Talk Pretty One Day; a large part of which is about exactly that time in his life, but clearly written in a much more polished version. Now I’m not sure if I do want to read it; to read a different version of what I already know, more honed and all as it will surely be. Why would I bother?
Sedaris is a marvellous essayist. I’m not sure that bringing out a 500-plus page volume of his diaries, with another equally lengthy one to follow, does him any favours. By the end of it, I felt as if I’d eaten too many pancakes and spent too many idle hours in the IHOPs he loved to frequent.
Rosita Boland is an Irish Times journalist