David Sedaris is the queen, so to speak, of the personal essay. Sedaris has written seven collections of essays to critical acclaim—chronicling his idiosyncrasies, upbringing, absurd life experiences, drug use and more, in a compellingly relatable way. Over seven million copies of his books have been sold, and his most recent work, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, debuted as number one on the New York Times Bestseller List.
I read the collection primarily out loud, on a road trip with my mom. We should have sprang for the book on tape—Sedaris’ nasal drone is just as alluring as his prose. But armed with a solid acting repertoire–i.e., playing male servants in three different plays throughout high school and college, and an unnaturally loud voice, I managed to do the trick.
As I read, my mom and I laughed together; Sedaris is pretty damn funny. Similar to his other collections, the book contains many autobiographical stories, in which the reader is privy to Sedaris’ trademark self-deprecation and wry humor. It is in these essays that Sedaris is at his best.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls marks Sedaris’ return to the personal essay format. In 2011, he published Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, an illustrated collection of stories from the perspective of personified animals. While I admired his creativity, I missed his autobiographical slant; I enjoyed his vision of animals commenting on everyday human life, but I really just wanted to know more about the awesomely absurd stories of his past—his time working as an elf at Macy’s, a visit to a Nudist colony, his experience as a gay man with a lisp growing up in the South—all told in his unique voice. I had a similar experience with parts of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: interspersed between his personal essays are satirical narrative essays. The narrators are primarily ignorant, uninformed Americans, and although at some points it is funny, it is also at other moments contrived. It mostly made me miss him as a character in his own work, craving a story where he is at the center.
Although Sedaris has previously written fictional narratives, his shift towards more stories from the perspective of made-up people is not surprising. Before Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, he wrote When You are Engulfed in Flames.
I really enjoyed When You are Engulfed in Flames, but it definitely marked a departure in Sedaris’ work, a departure that Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls also follows.
This departure could be verbalized as follows: When You are Engulfed in Flames could also be titled “I think I’m running out of material from my crazy past to write about.” And although the content of the book is pretty rich—in the primary story, he travels to Japan in a quest to quit smoking; separating Sedaris from his cigarette habit is like separating Cappy from her scarf obsession, marking his changing persona. In other words, at this point in time, Sedaris is no longer an aspiring artist hopping between minimum wage jobs. He no longer experiments with drugs or alcohol, and his OCD seems to be under control. He is self-aware of the fact that he is now a successful upper-middle class expat whose stories reflect his current existence. For example, in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, he writes about his briefcase being stolen on a tropical vacation, and mourns the loss of his laptop and visa.
Although Sedaris’ source material is not quite as queer or absurd as it has been in the past, his travel stories are at points uproarious, at points poignant. Especially humorous stories include a visit to the taxidermist to buy a stuffed owl, an account of roadside trash pickup in rural England, a comparison of China and Japan, a speaking tour bookended by trips to the Costco megastore, and admittedly, even the whole saga of his missing briefcase.
One of the best essays in the collection perfectly eclipses his current condition while also commenting on his past. He writes about process, specifically, about his daily journaling. He notes that he has kept a journal for the past 35 years, chronicling his daily existence and fleshing out small moments of humor, sadness and joy. And it is to this documentation that we owe many of his personal essays, essays that have caused many Americans—like me and my mom—to laugh, cry, and let’s be real, wish we had David as our best friend.