Caught out by the unreliable memoirs of a
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
By David Sedaris Little, Brown, 275pp, $29.99
IOWE an apology to David Sedaris, although I don’t suppose he’ll care either way. There is a funny passage in Author Author, an essay in this collection, in which Sedaris writes about book tours.
He says he has decided to ask a random question of every reader who comes up to have a book signed.
He has been signing in Boston ‘‘ for almost six hours’’ when a woman comes up to him and his mind goes blank, and all he can think to say is, ‘‘ When did you last touch a monkey?’’
‘‘ I expected ‘ Never’,’’ he writes, ‘‘ or ‘ It’s been years’, but instead she took a step back, saying ‘ Oh, can you smell it on me?’ ’’
It’s a good gag, unexpected, original and beautifully timed. It’s got everything, even monkeys. But Sedaris goes on to write: The young woman’s name was Jennifer, and it turned out that she worked for Helping Hands, an organisation that trains monkey to toil as slaves for paralysed people. At her invitation, I visited the facility outside Boston and spent a pleasant afternoon having my pockets picked by some of the cleverer students.
There’s no need for that. Such a program couldn’t possibly exist and the deceit spoils the pleasure of what’s gone before.
It’s one thing to recount honest stories about funny incidents in your life, and another to just make them up.
If Sedaris is going to write about stuff that didn’t happen, he might as well invent a character who isn’t David Sedaris, and give himself permission to fabricate hilarious satirical scenarios — as he does elsewhere in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls in a brilliant piece titled I Break for Traditional Marriage.
The narrator, Randolph Denny, falls into despair when he hears ‘‘ nearby New York’’ has passed a referendum legalising gay marriage. Although he has been married to Brenda for ‘‘ going on 39 years’’, suddenly, ‘‘ it was all just meaningless: our wedding, or anniversaries, even our love’’. ‘‘ Who are we?’’ Brenda cried. And I looked at her thinking, What do you mean, ‘‘ we’’?
Randolph shoots his wife and daughter in the head because ‘‘ if homosexuality is no longer a sin, then who’s to say that murder is?’’ He listens to talkback program where a caller remembers, ‘‘ As a boy we had this joke ... Your buddy might say, ‘ I love this pepperoni pizza’, and you’d say, ‘ Why don’t you marry it then?’ ’’
But since even gays can marry each other, ‘‘ I guess now you really could tie the knot with a pizza’’, the caller reasons. This leads Randolph to consider eloping with his neighbour’s rideon mower. But he suspects the authorities will probably close the loophole that allows men to wed machines.
Sedaris has form in matters of unreliability. National Public Radio in the US has reclassified as fiction some of his early essays such as SantaLand Diaries, supposedly an account of the author’s time working as a Christmas elf in Macy’s department store.
This is sad, because truly great comic writers don’t elaborate or embellish, they strip things down to their core. And Sedaris can be a truly great comic writer. There’s some lovely observational humour in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. On litter in London, Sedaris observes: The idea is that if you put something on a wall or stuff it between the slats of a fence, it doesn’t count. Like it’s only really litter