When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) is humorist David Sedaris’s fifth collection of autobiographical essays. As with his previous efforts, Sedaris does not follow a strict time line in chronicling his experiences; rather the pieces are loosely connected to both each other and to essays included in his previous books. A more prominent figure in this collection is Hugh, Sedaris’s longtime partner. In “Keeping Up,” one of several stories featuring Hugh, Sedaris establishes a comic pattern in depicting their life together. Sedaris paints himself as a comic foil to the more levelheaded Hugh who must endure Sedaris’s shortcomings and neuroses.
Several stories deal with Sedaris’s culture shock and linguistic shortcomings while living in France with Hugh. In an atypically serious selection, Sedaris recounts his relationships with a neighbor who is later convicted of child molestation. This story establishes a significant tonal shift for Sedaris in this book. Many tales deal with death and reflect Sedaris’s increasing awareness of his own aging and mortality. The darker and lighter elements of the book converge in tales such as “Memento Mori,” in which Sedaris seeks out a human skeleton as a present for Hugh.
Sedaris’s family and childhood, who figured prominently in his earlier collections, receive less attention in When You Are Engulfed in Flames. The most family-oriented tale recounts his mother and father’s obsession with art that he finds unbelievably tacky. Another tale finds Sedaris and his siblings battling an odd dislikeable babysitter. In it, Sedaris pokes fun at his own budding snobbishness, while acknowledging his fish-out-of-water feelings.
The book ends with a long story about Sedaris’s efforts to quit smoking while staying in Japan for three months. In this story, all of Sedaris’s trademark characteristics remain front and center. First, Sedaris’s extends the stranger-in-a-strange-land motif established in the earlier stories set in France. He also offsets his own bemused mockery of the world around him with honest dissections of his own failings and idiosyncrasies (in this case, his battle against nicotine). Taken as a whole, When You Are Engulfed in Flames parallels Sedaris’s earlier efforts in that it functions as an impressionistic autobiography.