“Repeating” the Mood

[an analysis by Heather Peters]

David Sedaris’ “Repeat After Me” shuffles his real-life relationship with his neurotic older sister, Lisa, and her relationship with Henry, the parrot, while ultimately coming to terms with truths about himself. Sedaris spends the majority of the piece poking fun at his sister’s gullibility and predisposition to misinformation, as well as her extremist love for animals: “Human suffering doesn’t faze [Lisa] much, but she’ll cry for days over a sick-pet story” (448). Sedaris details the events of his stay with Lisa, noting her quirks which range from speaking in code on the phone to leaving detailed instructions with emergency phone numbers and post-scripts for appliances and events unlikely to occur while she is away for an hour.

At first glance, this story appears to be a mere recounting of Sedaris’ visit with Lisa, complete with flash-backs and second-hand stories that come across as amusing ramblings. As the reader reaches the end, however, they realize that each tangent is relative to the overarching story, resulting in both its pinnacle and turning point in the final moments of the piece. Sedaris leaves the reader haunted with connections, creating a resonant mood. In a hypothetical scene, Sedaris presents the reader with a man waking up in the middle of the night and going downstairs into his sister’s kitchen, where he removes the covering on a large birdcage housing a parrot:

Through everything that’s come before this moment, we understand that the man has something important to say. From his own mouth the words are meaningless, so he pulls up a chair. The clock reads 3:00 A.M., then 4:00, then 5:00, as he sits before the brilliant bird [in the kitchen] repeating slowly and clearly the words, “Forgive me. Forgive me: Forgive me.” (451).

In this section, the reader assumes that the man is Sedaris and the bird is Henry. This resonates so brilliantly because of the hushed way in which Sedaris connects each of the previous sections together in this one moment. Sedaris says from “his own mouth the words [forgive me] are meaningless,” echoing back to an earlier passage where Sedaris describes Lisa’s predilection for conversation with Henry as opposed to Sedaris, knowing that Sedaris is likely to use anything she says as “scrap” for a future story. This also implies that the likelihood of Lisa believing the sincerity of those words is far greater if she hears them from Henry, who, “in the midst of a brief academic setback, [Lisa] trained to act as her emotional cheerleader […] screaming, ‘We love you Lisa!’ and ‘You can do it!'” (448).

Sedaris creates a consistently light mood throughout the story up until the last page when he expresses his first remorseful feelings toward sharing his sister’s “quintessential” story, which they both know is going to inevitably happen since Sedaris admits that he has a habit of airing his family’s dirty laundry for the sake of entertainment. This guilty feeling ties directly to the title of the piece, turning Sedaris into nothing more than a parrot “born to mock its jungle neighbors” by imitating the people around him who “generally [understand] that [his] word is no better than Henry’s” (446-447). In the final paragraph, during the hypothetical scene from the film-version of his life, Sedaris leaves the reader with a rain cloud over their head, feeling bad at the end of a funny story, cutting the laughter and smirking down to a nervous cough as Sedaris’ cloud opens up to let reality pour down.

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