NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 158 | October 29, 2008
THE POLITICS OF LITERATURE
THE NEW YORKER/
One of the many pleasures of being a longtime subscriber to The New Yorker each week, is the surprise factor of each issue, beginning with the cover illustration and ending with the cartoon caption contest on the last page. I want to do a complete essay on The New Yorker one of these days…but for present purposes (politics/literature/the upcoming election) let me put in a few good words about writing humor—almost a lost art in most American publications these days.
The New Yorker has a long tradition of fostering this form of writing, developing some of the most humorous writers in our culture. If you think Woody Allen is only funny in film…you should have read some of the first pieces he published in The New Yorker. And just when you think we’ve lost a great American humorist of literary distinction (New Yorker writer James Thurber, for example), before too long another writer enters (with laughter), and within a few years you begin recognizing him or her as a ‘New Yorker’ regular. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that David Sedaris is the James Thurber of our time (yet)…but I’m more than comfortable, overjoyed in fact, to pick up a current issue of the magazine and find another piece by Sedaris–which always speaks to our times. Norbert Blei
I don’t know that it was always this way, but, for as long as I can remember, just as we move into the final weeks of the Presidential campaign the focus shifts to the undecided voters. “Who are they?” the news anchors ask. “And how might they determine the outcome of this election?”
Then you’ll see this man or woman— someone, I always think, who looks very happy to be on TV. “Well, Charlie,” they say, “I’ve gone back and forth on the issues and whatnot, but I just can’t seem to make up my mind!” Some insist that there’s very little difference between candidate A and candidate B. Others claim that they’re with A on defense and health care but are leaning toward B when it comes to the economy.
I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they profes¬sional actors? I wonder. Or are they sim¬ply laymen who want a lot of attention?
To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”
To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.
I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?
When doubting that anyone could not know whom they’re voting for, I inevita¬bly think back to November, 1968. Hu¬bert Humphrey was running against Richard Nixon, and when my mother couldn’t choose between them she had me do it for her. It was crazy. One minute I was eating potato chips in front of the TV, and the next I was at the fire station, waiting with people whose kids I went to school with. When it was our turn, we were led by a woman wearing a sash to one of a half-dozen booths, the curtain of which dosed after we entered.
“Go ahead,” my mother said. “Flick a switch, any switch.”
I looked at the panel in front of me.
“Start on the judges or whatever and we’ll be here all day, so just pick a Pres¬ident and make it fast. We’ve wasted enough time already.”
“Which one do you think is best?” I asked.
“I don’t have an opinion,” she told me. “That’s why I’m letting you do it. Come on, now, vote.”
I put my finger on Hubert Humphrey and then on Richard Nixon, neither of whom meant anything to me. What I most liked about democracy, at least so far, was the booth—its quiet civility, its atmosphere of importance. “Hmm,” I said, wondering how long we could stay before someone came and kicked us out.
Ideally, my mother would have waited outside, but, as she said, there was no way an unescorted eleven-year-old would be allowed to vote, or even hang out, seeing as the lines were long and the polls were open for only one day. “Will you please hurry it up?” she hissed.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have some¬thing like this in our living room?” I asked. “Maybe we could use the same curtains we have on the windows.”
“All right, that’s it.” My mother reached for Humphrey but I beat her to it, and cast our vote for Richard Nixon, who had the same last name as a man at our church. I assumed that the two were related, and only discovered afterward that I was wrong. Richard Nixon had always been Nixon, while the man at my church had shortened his name from something fun¬nier but considerably less poster-friendly— Nickapopapopolis, maybe.
“Oh, well,” I said.
We drove back home, and when asked by my father whom she had voted for, my mother said that it was none of his business.
“What do you mean, ‘none of my business’?” he said. “I told you to vote Republican.”
“Well, maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.”
‘You’re not telling me you voted for Humphrey” He said this as if she had marched through the streets with a pan on her head.
“No,” she said. I’m not telling you that. I’m not telling you anything. It’s pri¬vate—all right? My political opinions are none of your concern.”
“What political opinions?” he said. I’m the one who took you down to reg¬ister. You didn’t even know there was an election until I told you.”
“Well, thanks for telling me.”
She turned to open a can of mushroom soup. This would be poured over pork chops and noodles and served as our din¬ner, casserole style. Once we’d taken our seats at the table, my parents would stop fighting directly, and continue their argument through my sisters and me. Lisa might tell a story about her day at school and, if my father said it was interesting my mother would laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he’d say.
“Nothing. It’s just that, well, I suppose everyone has a different standard. That’s all.”
When told by my father that I holding my fork wrong, my mother would say that I was holding it right, or right in “certain circles.”
“We don’t know how people eat the world over,” she’d say, not to him but to the buffet or the picture window, as if the statement had nothing to do with any of us.
I wasn’t looking forward to that kind of evening, and so I told my father that I had voted. “She let me,” I said. “And I picked Nixon.”
“Well, at least someone in the family has some brains.” He patted me on shoulder and as my mother turned away I understood that I had chosen the wrong person.
I didn’t vote again until 1976, when I was nineteen and legally registered. Because I was at college out of state, I sent my ballot through the mail. The choice that year was between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Most of my friends were going for Carter, but, as an art major, I identified myself as a maverick. “That means an original,” I told my roommate. “Someone who lets the chips fall where they may.” Because I made my own rules and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought of them, I decided to write for the name of Jerry Brown, who, it was rumored, liked to smoke pot. This was an issue very close to my heart—too close, obviously, as it amounted to a complete waste. Still, though, it taught me a valuable lesson: calling yourself a maverick is a sure sign that you’re not one.
I wonder if, in the end, the undecideds aren’t the biggest pessimists of all. Here they could order the airline chicken, but, then again, hmm. “Isn’t that adding an extra step?” they ask themselves. “If it’s a going to be chewed up and swallowed, why not cut to the chase, and go with the platter of shit?”
Ah, though, that’s where the broken glass comes in.
from THE NEW YORKER, October 27, 2008
contributes frequently to The New Yorker. He is the author of “Barrel Fever,” (1994) and “Holidays on Ice,” (1997), as well as three collections of personal essays: “Naked,” (1997), “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” (2000), and “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” (2004). In 2005, he edited an anthology of stories, “Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules.” He has also regularly contributed personal essays to Esquire. Sedaris and his sister, Amy Sedaris, have collaborated under the name The Talent Family and have written several plays, including “Stump the Host”; “Stitches”; “One Woman Shoe,” which received an Obie Award; “Incident at Cobbler’s Knob”; and “The Book of Liz,” which was published in book form by the Dramatists Play Service.
Sedaris made his comic début on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, reading “SantaLand Diaries,” which recounted his strange but true experiences of his job as a Macy’s elf clad in green tights. His original radio pieces can often be heard on the show “This American Life.” In 2001, Sedaris became the third recipient of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. He was named by Time magazine as “Humorist of the Year” in 2001. In 2005, he was nominated for two Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word Album (“Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,”) and Best Comedy Album (“David Sedaris: Live at Carnegie Hall,”).