David Sedaris has a pleasingly strange voice

The brilliant essayist already writes for the listener, which makes his new audiobook yet another triumph

Published April 25, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

David Sedaris first rose to prominence on public radio, with his 1992 performance of “Santaland Diaries,” in which he told the story of his career as Crumpet the Elf at the New York Macy’s. The most astonishing thing about this and other early performances, in retrospect, is how all the elements that conspired to make Sedaris a writer-celebrity — the embellishment from his own life, the transparent hyperbole, the play with repetition, the sharp and occasionally dark edge of his observational humor, and most of all his own pleasingly strange voice — were already present and operating so strongly that they seemed to belong to their own special genre (the Sedaris, let’s say) long before Sedaris had written and performed enough pieces that the group of them could reasonably qualify as a genre.

It seems necessary to say it that way, because it is not a complaint to say that Sedaris’ latest effort, “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” is mostly more of the same, merely the latest in a line of books containing tonally similar stories — fictional, nonfictional, somewhere in-between perhaps, but as in the tradition of ostensibly autobiographical poetry and stand-up comedy: Who cares? — which, if assembled in one doorstop-size volume that included everything in every one of Sedaris’ books, would seem to have been made to belong together in that way all along, because they all mostly work the same way. They are built on a sleek chassis made for the fast switchbacks of radio, where listener attention spans are even shorter than they sometimes can be on television. No one, save perhaps the producers of “This American Life,” have better mastered the radio narrative formula, which requires a steady drumbeat of change. It seems simple enough until you consider the poem-like compression the form requires, and which sometimes allows a writer as skillful as Sedaris to condense something novel-size into 15 or 20 minutes’ worth of words meant to be spoken.

This special quality — Sedaris writes for the listener first, and the reader second — is not the only reason why “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” is three or eight times more pleasurable than audiobook editions of otherwise better books that would certainly make for superior reading experiences on the page.

Equally important is that the listener gets to hear the stories in the voice of the human being who made them. Instead of the grandstanding inflections that too often come with professional voice talent — the bombast and over-enunciation of the stage actor, the too-polished, too-understated public radio-ishness of those who come from the world of broadcast media — we get the rises and falls of the person who built them into the sentences. The breaths fall at the right place. Most of all, even with a voice talent as attuned to irony as Sedaris, we get the feeling that feeling itself hasn’t been manufactured. The feeling of the writer — the thing that makes it possible for the reader or the listener to feel anything in the first place — is perhaps best communicated in the voice of the writer, if the writer has any ability at all with reading aloud into a microphone.

Many times, while listening to “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” I thought I might have to revise my own theory about what it is that makes an audiobook good. Usually I hope that while listening I will forget that I am listening, and fall into the story so deeply that what I am experiencing is something akin to living the story alongside the protagonist, an idea adapted from an idea John Gardner had about books, which he called “the uninterrupted dream.”

But the primary pleasure of listening to Sedaris is the fact that it is impossible to listen to Sedaris without constantly being reminded that you are listening to Sedaris. He insinuates himself into every line. He seduces. He cajoles. He jokes. He plays tricks. He whispers. He flatters. He mocks. He bullies. He murders the ordinary way writers make use of time. He interrupts himself whenever he wants so that he can offer an even more interesting version of himself. He plays hide-the-ball with his most sincere and vulnerable self, in effect saying: Look here! Look here! Now look here!

All that time, he is distracting you from the great intimacy he has built between you. In craft, he’s closest to a con man. Like a con man, he’s soon made you trust and love him. And that’s when — in “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” no less than in any of his other books — he drops all of his fishy armor, all at once, and in the characteristic last movement of everything, after you’ve been softened up by laughter and by the effort of following him around, he offers the true thing that more often than not makes you cry. You want to be angry with him for concealing it at the center of the story all along, but, instead, you love him for it.

This is a thing, surprisingly, that an audiobook can do to you.

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By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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