I thought Picka Pocketoni (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 219-227) was hilarious and, as usual, David Sedaris had me laughing out loud time and time again. I even picked it (no pun intended) because I knew it would be funny. I could tell by the title and more so by the writer. Sedaris, in my limited experience of him, is almost always funny and his POV usually interests me. But while I found this story just as funny and interesting as the rest, I simply didn’t find it believable.
It’s not that I don’t think it could’ve happened. And, in fact, I more than believe something happened that inspired this essay, but the story itself in its entirety, and the way Sedaris tells it, felt exaggerated and in moments even entirely fabricated to me. It’s a great story in that it kept my attention from start to finish but it didn’t feel real to me. It didn’t seem true.
Part of a writer’s mission, whether he or she is writing fiction or nonfiction, is to write in such a way as to suspend disbelief—to make us believe. In other words, even the craziest things should have us believing. Even when reading fantasy, we start to believe, at least for the sake of the story, in things we wouldn’t typically believe in like, say, aliens or zombies or unicorns. In nonfiction, this should be a no brainer—since the things, the writer’s stories and experiences, allegedly really happened. Right? Well, I’m no longer sure that’s the case since, basically, while I enjoyed the story, I don’t believe it happened—or at least I don’t believe it happened like this.
I’m disappointed, too, because I wanted to believe. I rode the subway in NYC for years, through most of my 20s, and have quite a few stories of my own brewing in my brain since some crazy stuff happens on trains but my issue isn’t with the probability of the occurrence itself it’s in the believability of the telling of the story. Sedaris set the story up well. I could picture this train. Hell, I could smell it. The story about the obnoxious Texas college kids was believable but it was also short and not so breathtaking. It was more of an observation than a complete story. I’m wondering if Sedaris decided to make up the second part to fill out the story. Perhaps if the story wasn’t already about those Texan kids, had Sedaris focused specifically on the couple instead, or entirely on either one or the other, it might have been more believable to me. I don’t know.
Have you ever people watched and then made up stories about those people? This felt like that to me. I don’t doubt he spotted an American couple on the train or even that they were rude and obnoxious. Maybe they were even talking about this particular topic of being robbed on a train. But that’s about as far as my faith goes on this particular story. I question the likelihood of Sedaris’s reaction or lack of reaction to being the topic of this couple’s false accusations, fear and anger. The words and actions of the couple, in particular the man, seemed farfetched to me. But Sedaris’s thoughts and reactions, or lack of reaction, is what really had me scratching my head. Based on what Sedaris has shared about himself in this story and in other stories, I think if this had happened he’d have moved to another part of the train, closer to Hugh, perhaps.
The fact that he was previously buying burlap for no apparent reason made me wonder if that was his way of saying he was about to sell us a bag of goods. There’s just something about the burlap. I mean, why burlap? There are many uses for burlap but he doesn’t tell us why “he’d hoped to buy a good deal of burlap.” He could have said it was for painting or to make a sack or mask, for example. But he skips the explanation. And by mentioning it and then never returning to it like this it somehow drew my attention to the burlap. And suddenly I’m obsessing over burlap and I’m not sure why. Was the burlap a distraction, like one a magician might use in a slight of hand trick? It may be a stretch but burlap is also a tough, resilient fabric so maybe Sedaris was making a point about people needing to be tough to deal with other people. Either way, something about the burlap had me wondering if this experience even really happened.
In so many of his stories, Sedaris seems determined to put two elements before everything else: humor and some sort of moral message or lesson. But while his other stories managed to grab and keep my attention, and more importantly suspend my disbelief, while simultaneously making me laugh, think and feel something, this one didn’t. His humor kept my attention but, at times, I found myself laughing at him, as well as at the ridiculousness of certain elements of this story, more often than I was laughing with him. So much felt exaggerated, even fabricated, for the sake of the joke. There was a moment when I actually rolled my eyes and that’s never a good thing. The moment when Sedaris writes: “Now I was a stinkpot and a thief. It occurred to me to say something, but I thought it might be better to wait and see what he came up with next.” I rolled my eyes at this because Sedaris himself says he’s not the type of person who would have said something, or even think quickly enough on his feet to say something in the moment, so the claim that he’d considered doing so plays false to me, but also the line “see what he came up with next” made me stop and wonder what Sedaris would come up with next.
Even the dialogue seems fake to me. It’s more comical than believable. “Golly, Pete?” Really? Did she really say that? Maybe, but this seems more like a caricature he’s painting than a reenactment of an actual memory which makes me wonder if maybe he’s the one doing the discriminating here. This dialogue feels so fabricated, forced and false to me that if it really had happened just like this then I’d probably recommend changing it in the story anyway to make it seem more believable. Just the fact that a story is true isn’t always enough to make it believable.
Sedaris admits “I was now licensed to hate this couple as much as I wanted. This made me happy, as I’d wanted to hate them from the moment I’d entered the subway car and seen them hugging the pole.” It seems to me that it was his reaction to the Texas college kids that upset him. I think he made up the story about the couple because the story about the Texas kids wasn’t enough to fill the essay. Later, after picking the couple apart and mentally mocking them, Sedaris says: “In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.” Immediately after this, as if given a gift from the karma gods Sedaris was given a reason to hate the couple as if he hadn’t already made up his mind to do so. This felt a bit too convenient and for me was the turning point when I lost my faith entirely in the story.
Sedaris gives us several clues that may imply he’s making this story up. Again there was the burlap, which I can’t seem to let go of, and there’s also the memory of his sister shouting: “Good luck beating that rape charge.” Also, the fact that Sedaris seems to have taken all of this as a compliment, like he let it go in his imagination a bit too far to the point he was enjoying the implication that he could have been a sly thief, leads me to think he was too busy daydreaming on that train to have absorbed such a detailed and dialogue filled recap of actual events.
On my first read I was already feeling skeptical of the story and I found myself wondering how much was true versus how much was made up simply for the sake of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme. Sedaris seemed hell bent on teaching this lesson. But after reading it again, letting it sit for a bit and looking back, I think the lesson goes a step further. Perhaps Sedaris is also saying: “Don’t believe everything you hear.” Or, in this case, read.
Unit 3’s lecture on Character says: “As you begin to develop in your writing character sketches, remember that you have precious little time to convey a life of a person to a reader, and so finding (and, if need be, altering or creating) these moments can be key; if you can create a strong, visual, memorable image of a person, where a distinct personality is conveyed through a line, an exchange, or an action, you can really do wonders to unlock the power of a story.”
Sedaris took this lesson to heart as he described the characters in his story. He painted vivid pictures of these people, perhaps too vivid and overly detailed. Details are good, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes when a story has too many details, if any one detail starts to seem even slightly off, even just a tad BS-ish, then the rest of the story quickly falls down like dominoes.
My brother is a horrible liar. When he lies, he has a few “tells.” For one, he smirks when he lies, like his body knows he’s a horrible liar and is laughing at his brain for even attempting such a thing. But, in addition to the smirk, he just flat out says too much. When he’s telling the truth, he gets to the point quicker and doesn’t take a bunch of detours. But when he lies, he piles on the details like he’s hoping one of them (or the combination of so many perhaps) will be the one that convinces me he’s telling the truth. Instead, more often than not, the opposite happens. Somewhere in the abundance of details he loses me altogether. And this is what Sedaris did.
A few paragraphs before the American couple acted scared of him Sedaris says: “People are often frightened of Parisians…” It’s like he was setting up his story—or setting up his joke. This could be seen as foreshadowing, I guess, but then there was just something about the way Sedaris continuously changes his reasoning for not speaking up. Every few paragraphs or so, Sedaris offers a new reason why he isn’t reacting. At first, insulted by the couple’s comments, he says he stayed quiet so he could criticize them in his head. Then when they accuse him of stealing, Sedaris still doesn’t say anything because he wants to see what they’ll “come up with next,” then because he doesn’t want to risk receiving an awkward apology that would result in an uncomfortable handshake, then because he’s trying to come up with a witty response or he’s daydreaming about the big scene with the cops. I wonder if he had simply stuck to that first reason, my mind might not have shifted so much and that shifting, I think, in the end caused me to stop focusing on his characters and start looking at him and his thoughts and actions instead.
In Picka Pocketoni, there was a moment when Sedaris saw and took an opportunity to pretend to be someone else and he let his imagination take him to another place. His intention was to take us with him on the journey and while he achieved this to a degree, especially through his humor, his characters and the story he told about his alleged experience on the train in Paris that particular day came across instead as exaggerated, fabricated, preachy and contrived.
Although I laughed a lot along the way, rather than pull me into his world and inspire me to feel connected to him and to his story and experiences, Sedaris lost me on this one.
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
I love how you recognized the burlap as (possible) selling a bag of goods; I’m not sure I would pick up on something like that, even though I haven’t read the story.
You know how obsessive I can be! Once this element itched at me ever so slightly, I just couldn’t seem to let it go.