Sedaris' short stories share the common theme of exposing the dark underside of human nature and family life in America, an oppressive blanket of guilt and suffering which can only be overcome by humor.
While on a tour of the Anne Frank house, David Sedaris remodels the kitchen and the attic in his head, elated that he has finally found his dream home after having buyer's remorse about his most recent apartment in Paris. In the middle of this wonderfully irreverent moment (one of many stories in which Sedaris jokes about otherwise off-limit topics), he spots a quote from Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi: “A single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way. If we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.” Sedaris follows this quote with his own reflection:
He did not specify that we would not be able to live in her house, but it was definitely implied, and it effectively squashed any fantasy of ownership. … I looked out the window, wondering who could have done such a thing [turned in the Frank family], and caught my reflection staring back at me. Then, beyond that, across the way, I saw the most beautiful apartment. (Sedaris 187)
This humorous self-reflection summarizes the variety of themes in this collection. Sedaris frequently delves deep into his own soul to bare its darkest thoughts, unafraid to acknowledge that human nature frequently causes us to do some pretty terrible things, like gorging oneself on chocolate to avoid sharing with the friendly neighbors (12). He reveals the dark belly of a consumer-society, in which sex lives are reignited by expensive purchases, homes are filled with creepy knickknacks, a college student dies with a bearskin rug in her trunk, and no matter how much wealth or stuff people own, we are “disappointed by how little pleasure they brought” (69). Sedaris rejects his own family, whether it's his father's clothes and mannerisms or lifestyle or his brother's redneck baby-raising, but at the same time embraces them. He reminds us that every person has a dark side, every relationship has its dark moments, and every family is flawed. Although, it may be the other way around: that the average person's life is actually filled to the brim with sadness and disappointment, while the moments of sunshine are found only in humor. Sedaris' strength is that he is able to tell jokes even about taboo topics such as the Holocaust, slavery, abortion, and pedophilia.
In “Hejira,” Sedaris recounts the time he was kicked out his house for being gay (except he doesn't know the reason for a few months). Outside of his sisters' apartment building, a stoned Sedaris and his sobbing mother sit in the car, and Sedaris wonders what passersby think: “Did they see us as just another crying mother and her stoned gay son, sitting in a station wagon and listening to a call-in show about birds, or did they imagine, for just one moment, that we might be special?” (90). Sedaris has another moment in “Repeat After Me,” later in the timeline, when his sister breaks down in the car after telling an embarrassing (and morbid) tale:
She reached the inevitable conclusion and just as I started to laugh, she put her head against the steering wheel and fell apart. It wasn't the gentle flow of tears you might release when recalling an isolated action or event, but the violent explosion that comes when you realize that all such events are connected, forming an endless chain or guilt and suffering. (155)
Is this not the summary, again, of Sedaris' entire project? His family stories become the vehicle for exposing the “endless chain of guilt and suffering” in every human life, in his family and in others'. There are far too many examples to list all of them here.
For Sedaris, only two cathartic elements overcome this pain: the first is the dark humor found in these tales; and the second is the act of sharing these stories with the world. Sedaris feels lingering guilt, sarcastically connecting his own exposing-naked of his family members to the turning in of Anne Frank's family, but like his OCD compulsions, even when a family member asks him to promise not to tell, he can't resist. “Repeat After Me” ends with Sedaris' painting of a strange picture: he gets out of bed in the middle of the night and repeats slowly, for hours, the words “Forgive me” to his sister's parrot (156). Sedaris is quick to indict himself for his crimes against his family, quick to reveal the darkest parts of their natures. And even the storytelling becomes a plea for forgiveness for the story's own existence, contrition and absolution and penance rolled into one.