Author : David Sedaris
Genre : Fiction
Publisher : Little, Brown & Co
AS the title of this book is so intentionally attention-seeking, we might as well deal with it first. The book, of course, has nothing to do with diabetes and little to do with owls (other than a stuffed one) and certainly nothing to do with owls with diabetes or discussions with owls about diabetes. So the title exists purely to catch attention, catch the reader off-guard and provoke curiosity. Which is perhaps not a bad summary of what David Sedaris is trying to achieve with this latest collection of essays and short pieces, many of which have appeared already in The New Yorker magazine.
If I were to pick one word to describe Sedaris’s world view, it would probably be “quirky”. He delights in being something of a misfit, an outsider looking in, and is from time to time brutally honest about his failings and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes they even made me laugh.
Sedaris is a comic writer and I had better admit from the start that comic writing has always been for me a very hit-and-miss affair. I have laughed my way through Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, frequently quote some lovely lines from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat and maintain to this day that A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh is one of the sharpest and funniest books ever written (together with those other childhood classics, the Just William books, but no-one, alas, reads them any more). But a book that sets out to make me laugh would probably never be near the top of my list. And perhaps it’s just me, but despite occasional flashes of brilliance, nothing in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls would make me want to change my mind.
First piece up is “Dentists Without Borders”, the title no doubt intended as an echo of Médecin Sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders), that wonderful French charity that works indiscriminately on the frontline of warzones the world over. This is not about a war zone, however; it’s about Sedaris’s trip to his French dentist. It starts promisingly enough with his summary of the American view of European healthcare as one “where patients languished on filthy cots waiting for aspirin to be invented”.
I also liked his sharp exchange with his doctor over “a thunderbolt bisecting my left eyeball”: “Where did it come from?” he asks. “How do we get most things?” the doctor replies. “We buy them?” quips Sedaris. Now this is not side-splittingly funny but it is nicely left-field, an unexpected response that catches both doctor and reader off-guard. But overall, this is a piece that could have pursued in depth and with wit the American/European divide over attitudes to health (“being American I want bigger names for things. I also expect a bit more gravity”) but descends into a much more mundane and straightforward account of implants.
Like many comedians, Sedaris is happy to milk his childhood, his home circumstances, his sexual preferences (he is gay) and his partner for material.
Thus in “A Friend In The Ghetto”, a chance telephone cold call comes from “some overseas call centre.... The man spoke with an accent, and though I couldn’t exactly place it, I knew that he was poor. His voice had snakes in it. And dysentery, and mangoes”. This quickly morphs into an account of his teenage desire to ask out on a date a poor, black, overweight girl from the wrong side of town because ... well, because she is those things rather than because he particularly likes her. I found this sad and slightly distasteful rather than funny, although to be fair to Sedaris he has no illusions about his conduct.
In fact, for my money, the whole piece treads a very narrow line between brutal honesty and poor taste. Of the disadvantaged, he writes: “You need people like that in your life so you can feel better about yourself, my mother used to tell me”, but later comes the sharp and self-aware comment that “We’d all turned our backs on privilege, but comfortably, the way you can when you have access to it”. And at the end he rather misses the cold caller. So let’s just say that, for this reader at least, the satire comes uncomfortably close at times to reinforcing the very prejudices it claims to be mocking.
I also found it impossible to raise even the slightest smile at his account of maltreating baby sea turtles when a child. Feeding them hamburgers until the aquarium is clogged and stinking, he claims a kind of innocent ignorance: “Looking back you’d think that someone would have said something – sea turtles for God’s sake! – but maybe they weren’t endangered yet. Animal cruelty hadn’t been invented either....” It may or may not be legitimate to blame ignorance and poor parenting for cruelty but to then make it the subject of a comic piece of writing raises all kinds of quite different ethical considerations.
Sedaris is a live performer, a radio broadcaster and has many fans the world over who think he is absolutely marvellous. I suspect he is funnier live than I found him on the page. As it was, the best I could do was to raise a wry smile and be impressed at some of his better one-liners. Like most comedy, you either get the joke or you don’t. Despite his obvious talents, I mostly didn’t.