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Crosley, too, fills her stories with implausible comic details, like the friend who got married and changed her last name to “Universe.” When Crosley retails her experiences as a bad employee or a bad volunteer at a museum, however, the reader is tempted to respond with judgment rather than laughter. In her essay “The Ursula Cookie,” from her first book I Was Told There'd Be Cake: Essays"The bad impression is confirmed when Crosley chooses September 11, 2001, as the day to hand in her resignation, and goes to a job interview the very next day. “How could I have gone through with a job interview at such a time?We didn’t know how dark things were or how much darker things were going to get.It was Wednesday morning, not ‘the day after 9/11.’ ” That is exactly wrong.
Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.
This is a particular kind of humor, rooted in the creation of a fictional alter ego who shares the author’s name.
“It belonged to an age when reading—reading almost anything—was the principal entertainment of the educated class,” Larkin argued, an appetite that “called for a plethora of dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies, all having to be filled.” Now it is television and the movies that cry out for ever more “content,” while the lush Victorian ecosystem has thinned out to half-a-dozen serious magazines, most of which have only slightly more appetite for essays than for that other obsolete form, the short story.
It is strange, then, to look around a quarter-century after Larkin and discover that we are living in a golden age of essays, or of ruminative writings that call themselves essays.
Maintaining that difference is an art, and not all of Sedaris’s epigones possess it.
The key to the art is hyperbole: by exaggerating his experiences beyond plausibility, the comic essayist signals the terms on which we are to read him.The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay.But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self.The subjects in The Oxford Book of Essays" to Mill on Coleridge, are engaged with texts, which is to say, with other minds.For the essay is one of the purest ways for a writer’s mind to record its own motions, which are the basis of prose style.You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage.For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays", is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term.It is also the way he continually confesses to bad behavior and bad motives, which, if taken as literally true, would make him a despicable person.In his essay “I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed,” Sedaris writes about seeing a woman trapped in a Ferris wheel accident, and his immediate reaction is to congratulate himself on witnessing such an interesting event.In Me Talk Pretty One Day", which appeared in 2000, Sedaris writes about taking an IQ test and finding that he is “really stupid, practically an idiot. Were my number translated into dollars, it would buy you about three buckets of fried chicken.” Of course, the reader does not believe this for a minute: the cleverness of the prose refutes its own premise.The effect is to call the whole story into question.