Sedaris, David. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Little, Brown New York, 2013. Personal essay; 10/17.
I was surprised by this guy’s stark humour in a piece just at the end of the current Paris Review (number 222). He seemed to be iconoclasting around at all sorts of sacred cows and I thought Yes! I’d like some more of this. Here we have 28 of what I would call personal essays, full of the same tell-it-like-it-is, and at best wackily hilarious. But the humour gets a little dark and viciously sardonic for me in a few places and I went away feeling ambiguous.
Several of the essays are a straight ironic outpouring of a weird combination of right- and left-wing attitude: “If you don’t think a mental patient has the right to bring a sawed-off shotgun to the church where his ex-girlfriend is getting married, you’re part of the problem. The truth is that crazy people – who are really just regular people but more misunderstood – have as much of a right to protect themselves as we do.” Another ironic commentator notices that a transgender person on TV who is now a man was attracted to men before the sex change and still is. “As if we didn’t have enough (homosexuals) already, some doctor had to go and make one.” Shades of Randy Newman.
Not everything here is entirely ironic. Loggerheads has a whimsical tone and features school-age kids’ (Sedaris spends a fair bit of time in that part of his life) innocent cruelty catching wild animals and keeping them as pets, whereupon of course they die and smell. Our grade six David S is attracted to a good-looking boy in his class (Sedaris is openly gay, completely without attitude about it) but also at age 12 surprises a couple of black guys going at it in a public library bathroom and wonders what that’s all about. Our narrator’s fairly alcoholic and extremely straight dad who is continually trying to get his son to ball games and encourage him to behave like a boy appears in that story as well. I think Sedaris is exactly right about voting on gay marriage, “If you don’t want to marry a homosexual, then don’t. But what gives you the right to weigh in on your neighbour’s options? It’s like voting on whether or not redheads should be allowed to celebrate Christmas.”
Sedaris and his partner Hugh travel a lot. There is a delicious sendup of phrase guidebooks, where Mandarin translations include intimacy: “How about going to bed?” And, says Sedaris, a line that might have been written especially for himself: “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.” But the description of physical Beijing, especially the food, is harshly disgusted. I’ve been to big Chinese cities, they are no worse than big dirty cities anywhere else, and there is no way this capable author is switching to an ironic ugly-American tone here.
As I said I’m not sure what to make of this style of commentary. When he’s funny, David Sedaris is as good as anyone. It’s no surprise that I’m also in favour of people expressing negative opinions. If you don’t like the peaches, don’t shake the tree. But I’m a little ill at ease with the caustic side of his point of view. He’s very successful and popular. Considering that (neglecting being in the right place and on the right subject at the right time) who and what is popular gives us a bit of a picture of what the world around us is like. Maybe not liking the picture too much is a good thing, but I’m not so sure.