If you’re a big fan of David Sedaris—like you want to crawl inside his brain and/or get stuck with him on a broken elevator or malfunctioning roller coaster (what? He’d have great commentary)—then take this piece of advice: Don’t read The New Yorker.
Sedaris released a new book of essays this month, the bizarrely named Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, which I bought with all the speed and joy of a stoner hitting up Taco Bell for his or her first Ranch Dorito Taco. And although LEDWO is chock full of traditionally hilarious Sedaris observations—on everything from the restroom situation in China to the litter situation in rural England—I found myself suffering from a prolonged sense of déjà vu. Indeed, the majority of the essays featured in Sedaris’ latest contribution to the bookshelf have been published before, most of them in the New Yorker.
Now, I’ve got nothing against authors double-pubbing their essays—Nick Hornby has an entire series of books based on his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer—but it does take some of the joy out of acquiring a new collection from one of your favorite writers. Sedaris in particular covers subjects so mundane on their face that one can’t help but remember his past contributions to the essay genre—never have I thought to myself “Now, who wrote that piece about the predatory habits of Normandy house spiders again?”
In fact, and it pains me deeply to say this, LEDWO feels in general like a bit of a throwaway, the Sedaris equivalent of Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing (which I panned when it came out, and will continue to pan — though I feel guilty about it — despite her death). Excluding for a moment the repeated essays, the book also features several short stand-up bits meant to be read by kids doing what I can only deduce is something like essay-slam-poetry (Sedaris notes in his prologue that this is something he’s discovered teens do with his work). These pieces—though written from the perspective of patently non-Sedaris personas (a pregnant teenager, an enraged homophobe)—still have typical DS flair, but are something of a strange addition, and their sense of irony is less subtle than one might be used to in the Sedaris oeuvre.
Even within the essays proper, Sedaris seems to be phoning it in, and often flits from topic to topic in a manner that suggests he wasn’t entirely sure what he’d set out to write about. And while he can do all of the above with uncanny humor—he’s still David Motherfucking Sedaris, after all—the result sometimes feels muddled. Absent is the kind of thoughtful and hilarious focus applied to “Letting Go,” Sedaris’ essay on quitting smoking, or “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” his piece on learning French (though LEDWO’s “Easy, Tiger,” first published in the New Yorker, covers similar territory.)
Of course, the book has its gems: “Understanding Understanding Owls” focuses on Sedaris’ attempts to get his boyfriend Hugh a stuffed owl as a Valentine’s Day gift. (The NYT review described this essay as “creepily unfunny” but I was all about it.) And perhaps the best piece arrives towards the end of LEDWO: “Day In, Day Out” chronicles Sedaris’ long history of keeping journals, and their contents go a long way towards explaining why he has such a particular flair for observation. (A list of such journal entries includes things like “5/15: Lisa puts a used Kotex through the wash, and her husband mistakes it for a shoulder pad” and “4/6: I write down my e-mail address for Ian, and after looking at it he says, ‘Oh my God. You have handwriting just like Hitler’s.’ Note: what kind of person knows what Hitler’s handwriting looks like?”) Finally, as always, Hugh’s indirect contributions to the book are perfect, and make me want to rent out the couple’s guest bedroom for the better part of a year just for the opportunity to eavesdrop on them.
Being a professional humor writer (essayist, author, whatever) must of course be frustrating; at some point, you begin to run out of material. But this is what makes David Sedaris who he is: When you can turn a trip to the dentist, or an experience in airport security, into something poignant and insightful and hilarious, you theoretically have a near-infinite universe of things to write about. And so perhaps this is why LEDWO feels like a bit of a let-down. When Sedaris is on, he’s on—while reading this week, I’d [obnoxiously] text my friends his better bits, stuff like “My new passport photo made me look like a penis with an old man’s face drawn on it”—and so when he’s off, or just slightly less on, it feels like an affront. Like Beyoncé putting out a bad album, or Jesus coveting his neighbor’s wife.
So I suppose it’s not entirely fair to Sedaris, these lofty expectations, or the fact that LEDWO being pretty good was somehow mitigated by my expectation that it be great. These are things I’ll have to think about, or better yet bring up with him the next time we’re trapped on a roller coaster together. Which I hope is soon. Really really soon.
TITLE: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
AUTHOR: David Sedaris
PAGES: 288 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Me Talk Pretty One Day, When You Are Engulfed in Flames
SORTA LIKE: The above
FIRST LINE: “One thing that puzzled me during the American healthcare debate was all the talk about socialized medicine and how ineffective it’s supposed to be.”