Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Like David Sedaris, Only Not as Good

While I was reading Augusten Burroughs’ “Magical Thinking: True Stories,” I asked my girlfriend what she thought of the author. “He’s not as good as David Sedaris,” she said.
The comparison is telling. Both are middle-aged, gay satirists who adopted Manhattan as home. Both write similar essays, in a similar style, about similar subject manner. So when one (Burroughs) comes on the scene several years after the other (Sedaris), I can’t help but make the comparison.
Well, now that I’ve finished “Magical Thinking,” I have to admit: my girlfriend was right. (There, I said it.) Burroughs ain’t got nothin’ on David Sedaris.
Whereas David Sedaris’ writing comes off natural, witty and effortless, Burroughs writing does not. The biggest issue I have with “Magical Thinking” is that Augusten Burroughs just tries way too fucking hard. He’s a funny guy, a decent writer, but he overdoes it again and again. He tries so hard to shock his audience with his overhyped personal confessions that all else is lost.
I don’t think he’s an inherently mean guy, but he sure as hell tries to be. This book is filled with fantasies of people who irk him getting mowed down by cars, buses, trains, etc. There is literary value in writing down such deeply personal thoughts, but Burroughs seems unable to find it. He hates everything. And not in a clever, ironic kind of way. To be honest, his disdain for everything but himself gets very boring very quickly.
If Augusten Burroughs is anything, it is king of the hyperbole. In this book, finding a live rat in his bathtub is described as, “far worse than suddenly finding yourself walking through a prison cafeteria wearing Daisy Duke shorts and a Jane Fonda headband.” I understand his sentiment about rats, but the aforementioned prison scene makes any other problem seem irrelevant by comparison.
At times, the hyperbole is so extreme that the point he is trying to make becomes meaningless. When he writes about the frustrations of losing his hair in his early 20s, I can’t exactly relate, but I try to sympathize. But when he compares going bald to dying from breast cancer, I lose interest. I’m all for making extreme jokes, but Burroughs does it carelessly and repetitively. This frustrates me (but not the way cancer would).
And despite all the interesting things that have happened to this man, frankly, he isn’t all that interesting. He lives in the west 50s, hates ironing his clothes and works at an advertising firm in Manhattan. Let me just say that if there is one more story about someone who works at an advertising firm in Manhattan, I really don’t want to hear it… unless it somehow incorporates zombies, boxing or a bank heist, preferably all three.
There’s one subject, however, that Burroughs writes about with passion and realness: his partner Dennis. When Burroughs tells me that he loves this man, I believe it. His words of love are pure and beautiful, and it is clear he and Dennis have something special, something worth writing about. This relationship features more prominently in the latter pages of the book, and the final story about Dennis is by far the best. Burroughs’ love for Dennis is so rich that he comes across as disinterested and bored when dealing with other subject matter.
Burroughs’ childhood memoir “Running with Scissors” is currently collecting dust on one of my bookshelves. I haven’t read it yet, and it may take me a while to psyche myself into picking it up. I understand that “Running with Scissors” is his childhood memoir, although he does refer to his childhood in this collection of “true stories.” He’ll be talking about shopping or dating and make a flash reference to his “terrible” childhood, something about his mother being insane, his own stint in some unnamed mental institution, being sexually abused. He lobs these references out so quickly, and then moves on to some other mundane topic. For me, the effect is jarring. You don’t drop a sex abuse bomb and then continue writing about buying an iron at Kmart. Perhaps his hesitancy to discuss his childhood is because he expects that his readers have already read “Running with Scissors,” but I think this book still needs more than an occasional reference to his upbringing.
His relationship with his parents is also barely mentioned: “My parents hated each other, and I hated them. I longed for them to die in an auto accident so that I could be whisked away by uniformed social workers and sent to live in a compound near a major city.” This piques my interest, but he immediately drops the issue. Yet he will write for pages about seeing P Diddy (or Puff Daddy or whatever-the-hell he calls himself) at a race track.
Perhaps this is just his style, perhaps this book is just wildly unfocused, but I had a hard time relating to his stories. They seem removed from reality, which is very odd for a collection of “True Stories.”
I hate writing bad reviews, but this book left me feeling cheated. And, damn it, I don’t get cheated without writing about it.
Now, back to some more David Sedaris.

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