Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
Review by Kathryn Lackey
I first stumbled upon David Sedaris about five years ago, when a friend loaned me his 1997 book, Holidays On Ice. At the time I was working twelve-hour shifts as the sole employee of a coffee shop. This owner, who liked me about as much as one might enjoy a colon infection, sat upstairs in a small apartment with streaming video to monitor me for signs of either sedentary positions, or minor mishaps. She waited, impatiently I imagined, to witness egregious errors like slicing tomatoes too thick, or to see me sitting for longer than a half second without a cleaning rag in motion. Mistakes meant I may hear her footsteps pounding down the wooden stairs from the floor above, before she swooped in for sharp, utterly defeating, vituperations.
After 12 hours of anguish that arose from continuous mind-numbing work under a sort of Foucaultian panoptic threat, I would leave work and retreat to a small green knoll near the coffee shop and cry. My friend ran into me as I sat wrapping up one of these sulky episodes and after patiently listening to me vent she stoically replied, “It could be worse.” And to put things in perspective for me, she loaned me my first David Sedaris work. For those who have been avid David Sedaris readers, perhaps I needn’t remind you of the opening story of his book Holidays on Ice,“Santaland.” David Sedaris, dressed in an elf costume, describes his task of working as Santa’s helper for a holiday season. Though his story didn’t make me like my job more, it did give me a different outlook. Life can be tough sometimes, but it’s always better to laugh than to cry.
David Sedaris has for years, offered autobiographically-based short stories that notoriously find humor in strange places. After a change of pace with his last collection of droll animal fables in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, his newest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, allows us to once again get inside his daily life.
Sedaris’ ability to bring unabashed humor to the problems associated with life, love, culture, and all the things in between, stems first from his insatiable knack for writing witty prose. Unique analogies are among Sedaris’ fortes. In his opening essay, “Dentists Without Borders,” Sedaris uses colorful descriptions to humorously describe his own hypochondriacal inclinations, from a benign fatty tumor he describes as “a deviled egg tucked under my skin,” to his gums that have decayed to the point where he can “floss with the sash to [his] bathrobe.” In his essay “#2 to Go,” detailing a visit Sedaris makes to China, he describes the landscape as having “wild outdoor turds” alongside “wads of phlegm glistening like freshly shucked oysters.”
These comical explorations, however, are not simply the workings of a witty solipsist. Instead, his prose holds poignant observations of the society we live in. His essay “A Friend in the Ghetto,” a great example of this, is based on a child version of Sedaris, which describes him “allowing” a poorer black girl at his school to pose as his girlfriend. His reasons for this gesture are admittedly selfish with a root in cruelty, and soon we see the reality in Sedaris’ head and reality as it truly exists are quite detached.
This is not to say that this new collection simply reiterates the same structure and motifs of earlier works. A poignant difference evident in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is the trend towards themes conveying overt political messages. His essay “Dentists Without Borders” makes a clear statement about the current health policy in the United States, albeit through his traditional self-deprecating technique. In his essay, “#2 to Go,” however, his lack of cultural sensitivity is not completely surprising, but his inability to bring the essay around to a place where we see Sedaris as the one with the flaws, instead of who he is objectifying, is unexpected. The story presents China as uncultured and unsophisticated, particularly compared to Japan, and comes off as arguably xenophobic. Though still rich with witty perspectives, the almost rant-like quality of this story sets it below the bar of Sedaris’ typical work.
Also new to this collection of stories are the fictional monologues included under the “etc” portion of the title. The “etc” is inspired, as he explains in an “Author’s Note” in the beginning, by teenagers he has met who participate in “Forensics,” a competitive oral recitation falling somewhere between speech and debate. These essays shy away from subtlety, and operate at deliberate shots below the belt at certain political attitudes, but for those who identify with Sedaris’ view, these monologues are suitably entertaining.
It’s hard to be funny, and it’s even harder to make humor meaningful. But this collection shows once again that David Sedaris is a master. For those on the fence about David Sedaris, his stab at fictional monologues and his perhaps exaggerated political themes may not be the key to push you into his arms. But for those of us who drool impatiently as we wait for his new work, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, despite its limitations, gives us an opportunity to eagerly turn a few more pages towards what by now feels something like friendship.