David Sedaris is known as a humorist. Time magazine named him the Humorist of the Year in 2001. Many of his essays are said to locate comedy in his childhood in North Carolina. The same can be said of these two of his essays: Six to Eight Black Men and Now We are Five. This paper compares and contrasts these two essays, covering a number of elements including whether they meet abide by the ‘humorist’ tag given him, and to what extent they may be autobiographical (that is, whether they are rooted in his childhood in North Carolina), as well as thematic similarities and differences.
Naturally, these two stories- as any two stories (even written by the same person)- are different. But then again, and maybe because they are written by the same person, they are equally similar.
One thing that stands out in Sedaris’ essays is the narration. In the traditional sense, essays are about the ‘truth’, facts about places, people, events and time, among other things (Alagic 4). But questions have now been asked regarding what it means to talk of the ‘truth’. The question here, perhaps, is about the perspective that one approaches in examining the so-called ‘truth’. For example, if one were to consider the shape of a pen, the shape of the pen that one sees when the pen is placed on a table is not the same as the one they see when it is placed inside a glass filled with water. Yet the pen remains the same. Of course, this is a very simplistic take. However, it demonstrates just how the so-called facts about the same thing can be different depending on the perspective one takes, where one stands. This is what has brought in what has come to be known as the creative non-fiction. Alagic (7, citing Gutkind) says that creative nonfiction provides writers “an alternative form of writing in which subjectivity and the merging of fact and fiction, is encouraged”. Now to what extent Sedaris merges fact and fiction, such as in these two essays, is hard to say. Still, the narrative style that goes beyond mere fact-reporting that is conventional essays is there.
These two essays take the form of fiction. They have a beginning, then they slide down to a middle and to an end, although the story also goes back and forth in memory. There is a dialogue, which is nothing strange. However, the dialogues seem to perfectly placed, seeming- if it may be said- outrageously fitting and coincidental. Yet, one may not want it any other way.
Six to Eight Black Men, for instance, starts with gun laws and habits in the United States; continues to Europe, covering a few country-specific habits in France, Germany and ends up Holland. The essay employs literary tropes as well, including metaphors. The anecdote about the different ways in which cocks in different countries crow, for example, is obviously a metaphor for something bigger- perhaps something to do with men?
Now We are Five looks very much like fiction. The narration is spot-on, capturing mood in not just words, but also structure. Again, adopting the habits characteristics of fiction, Sedaris makes the story flow so easily. Starting with his sister’s suicide, the story appears to deviate from that core story. Yet, everything is related, a story about a family moving on after tragedy, including his brother who sounds like a woman and accepting it (Sedaris 1).
Most importantly, the voice of narrator, the I, makes the reader ‘own’ the story. Notably, though, the I seems to work best in Now We are Five, maybe because it is such a story of personal tragedy and to give the voice to the third person would separate the tragedy from Sedaris from it. It works well.
In the end, the language of these stories have so much color and cadence, so much that it is hard to discern between fact and fiction. Still, you get the point if you ‘listen’.
These stories also differ in terms of theme. Six to Eight Black Men is about cultural differences between places- what Sedaris refers to “regionalism” (Sedaris 1). He focuses more on the differences in the traditions surrounding Christmas in the US and Holland, and what impacts they may or may not have on other aspects of life in general.
Now We are Five is a story of personal tragedy. It is a story in which Sedaris may be said to be looking for answers on how Tiffany could have turned out as she did and how they (him and the rest of the family) could have prevented her tragedy from happening. Ultimately, it is also how tragedy brings can draw a family together. Sedaris buying the holiday cottage may largely be inspired by the tragedy, the realization that they could soon be gone and that they might as well enjoy each other while they still can.
Therefore, the tone (discussed below) of both these stories differs in this regard.
- Humor and Tone
That said, Sedaris has been known as a humorist. In this regard, observes Andersen (1), Sedaris has been known to employ sarcasm as a style, and which has served him well. Indeed, we see the humor, the light side of Sedaris in Six to Eight Black Men than we do in Now We are Five. Of course, that is not surprising.
Now We are Five is a story of tragedy, of personal loss and pain. Sure, Sedaris admits not having had a good relationship with his sister Tiffany. Still, the story is more of a question; the tragedy of Tiffany’s life and what could have been and what part- if any- the individual family members (Sedaris included) played in Tiffany’s tragedy and whether they could have prevented it. Under such circumstances, there is only too much humor one can afford. Set at a time when Tiffany’s death is still fresh and everyone is only trying to come to terms with it, even when they pretend that is not the case. Surely, in such a circumstance, even the most optimistic would have a hard time telling a joke sustainable in, say, two thousand words and above. Sedaris makes the effort.
In the end, the tones of these two essays differ. Fittingly, Six to Eight Black Men is lighter because it tackles a story that can be made fun of. Now We are Five, on the other hand, deviates from the Sedaris’ readers have come to know, the humorist. But it is understandable; it is expected.
In conclusion, this paper compared and contrasted Sedaris two essays: Six to Eight Black Men and Now We are Five. Both essays fit within the genre of creative nonfiction for which Sedaris is known. However, the themes and tones differ: Six to Eight Black Men being very much the humoristic piece that is normally characteristic; Now We are Five, a story of personal tragedy, being ‘darker’.
Alagic, Azra. Not Like My Mother: Truth and the Author in Creative Nonfiction.
Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Masters of Arts (Research), Creative Industries Faculty: Queensland University of Technology, 2009. Web, 05 November 2014
Andersen, Gregory. A Sarcastic Style for Every Occasion. Marinscope, Nov. 21, 2013. Web,
05 November 2014
Sedaris, David. Now We are Five. The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2013. Web, 05 November
Sedaris, David. Six to Eight Black Men, in David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy
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