Thursday, September 4, 2014

Melodrama in Personal Narratives

"At the age of fifteen, I was maybe not the expert I made myself out to be, but I did own a copy of The History of Art and knew that eastern North Carolina was no hotbed of artistic expression. I was also fairly certain that no serious painter would devote half the canvas to his signature, or stick an exclamation point at the end of his name.
'That shows what you know,' my mother said. 'Art isn't about following the rules. It's about breaking them. Right, Lou?'
And my father said, 'You got it' " (Sedaris 133-134).

David Sedaris is a humorist writer who has released several books based on his own experiences, flavored with his unique sense of sarcasm and dry irony. He employs melodrama on a smaller scale in his short chapter narratives. The above excerpt comes from his book When You are Engulfed In Flames, specifically from the chapter "Adult Figures Charging Toward a Concrete Toadstool." Young Sedaris is a victimized protagonist -- not quite a hero as Sedaris often informs the reader of his less redeeming, rather ridiculous qualities -- although that may all be part of the melodramatic characterization of himself as an individual flawed but retaining good intentions on the whole. In this chapter he is being misunderstood by his parents, who doubt his taste in art even though he was the one who introduced them to art collecting in the first place. They undermine his often negative opinions of their purchased work because he is a child, one who is unable to gain direct experiences because he does not have the income to participate in art collecting himself as well as lacking the indirect experiences to analyze and digest the art that is being brought into their house. They brush off his comments as misconceptions fostered by his naivete. This lack of recognition frustrates Sedaris, who goes off to college and learns for himself what artistic mastery really is, "I was in my second year of college by then and was just starting to realize that the names my parents so casually tossed around were not nationally known and never would be. Mention Bradlington to your Kent State art history teacher, and she'd take the pencil our of her mouth and say, 'Who?' " (Sedaris 135). In this sense, the protagonist is freed from the misgivings passed on to him by his parents and his small-town background and liberated to decide what good art is for himself. He gains the acknowledgement he never received (and never will receive, shame) from his parents through the many admirers of paintings he collects as an adult, "People hush up when they stand before my paintings. They clasp their hands behind their backs and lean forward, wondering, most likely, how much I paid. I want to tell them that each cost less than the average person spends on car insurance[...] Explaining though, would ruin the illusion that I am wealthy and tasteful" (Sedaris 137). And so the melodramatic plot completes itself in an ironic manner; the "hero" resolves his own misconceptions and gains recognition from authority but in the process is delivered into the same position of the parents that denied him of the approval he initially craved. Sedaris' use of melodrama in his personal narratives make his work light-hearted and funny, but his overall cynical worldview grounds his writing as well, making him a truly unique author.

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