Monday, April 16, 2018

Standing Room Only: A Review of David Sedaris' Semi-Nonfiction Collection

A quick, quirky look at the comedian's 2013 collection of non-fiction (and fiction) escapades. ♦ 
Most people wonder where the title Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls comes from but with a quick google search, you can discover that David Sedaris (author of said book) came up with the title during a book signing, during which he signed a fan’s book with the words ‘let’s explore diabetes with owls.’ He thought it was so funny that he decided, then and there, that it would be the title of the next book. This did not surprise me. When I asked him to sign my copy of the new collection, he thought for a moment before writing—

“To Ali: it’s standing room only at the abortion clinic you like.”

This kind of devilish humor is to be expected of David Sedaris, also author of several other popular novels such as Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and, most recently, Theft by Finding, which is a collection of edited and published diary entries. Owls, however, is his most recent collection of non-fiction essays, many of which center around the topic of familial bonds and how they bring us together, push us apart, twist and distort with time. In a time where social media seems to reign supreme, we find ourselves constantly drawn to the lives of others— in literature and online. In Owls, what Sedaris succeeds in making readers feel like they intimately know the characters appearing in his essays. When I read along, I think to myself oh, this is the sister who killed herself, or this must have been before his mother’s fatal bout with alcoholism. The more Sedaris you read, the more impactful the stories become; the characters become more and more lifelike with each new collection. He provides minute yet telling details about all of them that often times, it’s difficult to remember that readers don’t actually personally know his family.

What set this new essay collection apart is Sedaris’ choice to include several fictitious essays. Sedaris explains in his author’s note that these essays were created to be performed in Forensics competitions. Forensics competitions are for high school students— and are basically monologue competitions performed in front of a panel of judges. All of these works of fictions use exaggeration as their main form of humor, blowing the stupidity of stereotypical Americans out of the water. In the various essays, he takes on the personas of an entitled woman who has just stolen her sister’s husband; a man who goes off his rocker when he hears gay marriage has been legalized; and an über religious man who discusses what he would do should he be put in charge of ruling the world. Though not introduced at their start as fiction, these pieces are instantly recognizable as Not-David-Sedaris-and-his-family. Sedaris’ nonfiction whose voice is so distinct that readers can recognize the tone within the span of one sentence.

Sedaris' humor quietly reflected by "Essays, etc."

All of Sedaris’s non-fiction stories employ a braided technique of writing, meaning that they start with one anecdote, veer suddenly down a different narrative path, veer again, and return to the original story in the most surprising way. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the first story thread by the time Sedaris circles back to it, but he does so in a way that imbues the piece with multiple levels of meaning. This allows him to use his present life as a lens with which to examine his past— a past filled with devious sarcasm and humorous tales of being a perennial outcast. A story that nearly totally encapsulates all of Sedaris’s classic elements is “Loggerheads,” in which his friendship with another unpopular boy— a boy who also has complex familial issues— illuminates how Sedaris considers so much of his identity to be that of a brother, son, and family member. Other essays in this collection reveal similar themes: “Laugh, Kookaburra” highlights the goofy Sedaris family dynamic that David himself considers to be completely normal. “A Man Walks Into a Bar Car” discusses the failure of love, and his own failure to be brave enough to take a chance on it. The piece “Understanding Understanding Owls” shows the rarity of being recognized as your true self by strangers, the self that isn’t perfect and put together, but darker, more self-deprecating, the kind of person “who’d actually love a [the skeleton] Pygmy, and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport, thinking, breezily, Well, it was a long time ago.”

This is the magic of the essay collection: through his stories, Sedaris reveals something human to readers about both him and ourselves that we aren’t always readily able to admit. Not the good things, but the bad, the small evils inside our heads, the cynical, twisted bits. This darkness is often contrasted by a laugh-out-loud lightheartedness, both somehow severe and balanced at the same time. He mixes self-reflective personal honesty with peculiar and yet accurate details; throughout the course of the book, David characterizes himself as looking “like a penis with an old person’s face drawn on it,” calls Australia “Canada in a thong,” and calls Costco a place so large that it “has its own weather.”

He likens the sound of blissful farting post colonoscopy as “creating gods own horn section.” Perhaps the strangest and most accurate is the anecdote about hearing a foreign language “so unmelodious and dire-sounding [he] could not imagine it having the words for birthday cake.” This is the man who allows priority book signing to men under 5 foot 6, and when asked “what about us?” [by] the pregnant and the lame” responds “because it was my show, I told them to wait their fucking turns.” The charm of the novel is its upfront narcissism, the sweet devotion to family, the sharp wit with which Sedaris writes. No matter who you are or where you come from, you will be able to see part of yourself reflected in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls.

  • About the Author
    Ali Royals is a sophomore Creative Writing major and Marketing Minor at Miami University. She enjoys pestering her friends via email and is probably in line at Starbucks whenever you need her.

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