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Calypso (2018)
Book Reviews

Calypso (2018)

Sedaris’ darkest, yet frequently most compelling collection yet invites readers to contemplate the contradictions of life itself.

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It’s been a long five year wait for Calypso, David Sedaris’ first collection of (mostly new) essays since 2013’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, the longest gap yet between musings and observations from the world’s most popular chronicler of the mundane and pedantic. It’s also the shortest title for one of his books since Naked, which means if you’re a parent who spent those postpartum recovery hours nose-to-page your bundle of joy and innocence is now eligible to drink. Legally.

Last year’s Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) represented something of a change for Sedaris, a collection of journal entries focusing not on the present but distant past, despite ample material to satiate the masses. It’s not like he’d stopped observing like he’s been doing on the regular for a quarter century now. Calypso collects 21 essays, many reprints, bringing anxious readers and his legion of fans up-to-speed on what’s been happening in his life since then. As it turns out, quite a bit.

Some are calling it his darkest, most distressing collection yet. That’s probably true, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less funny, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness and reflection running underneath his usual array of deflections and casual bitchiness.

“Now We Are Five” (from The New Yorker) sets much of the tone as Sedaris recalls hearing the tragic news of the death of his younger sister, Tiffany, by suicide in May 2013. Rather than eulogize her, he slips backwards in time to recall family gatherings on Emerald Isle in North Carolina, which stopped after their mother died. Before Tiffany’s death plans had been made to revive them, with David becoming the family successor as lead planner – and financier.

Previous trips saw the Sedaris children rally behind each other, a practice they’d continue into their adult lives, despite Tiffany’s struggles making it difficult. Anyone who’s suffered such a loss knows the process of reliving past memories can be a struggle to highlight the good times while minimizing those lesser moments. Those who’ve grown up with someone suffering from mental illness can sympathize with the difficulties untangling the two, reconciling the person loved with the person they actually were.

Accepting this does, in a way, allow us to acknowledge our role in their lives but also accept where our responsibilities for their behavior end. “We had other kids,” their parents said. “You think we could let the world stop on account of any one of you?”

It’s not until a second essay, “A House Divided”, that Tiffany’s real problem is finally named: her illness, though even this is rationalized. If she’d been more forthright, Sedaris writes, we could have put her behavior in context. A final essay, “The Spirit World”, allows him a chance to say goodbye, in his own way, to his sister.

One of the most irresistible qualities about Sedaris’ writings is how often he prefers the small questions over the big ones. Like when shopping at Kapital, a Japanese clothing outlet whose motto appears to be why not? in “The Perfect Fit”, this collection’s comical highlight. When he and his sisters consider carved dildos and pastiche flannel shirts he ponders “How do they get the cuts and stains so…right?”

I won’t go into every essay, but longtime fans will find more than enough to satisfy them – as if they needed permission. He’s now a man firmly in middle age, as comfortable wearing culottes onstage as he is collecting trash. Do you know what a “pocket gay” is? Or the delightful melding of Bulgarian insults with kidney stones? You will.

“Stepping Out” is a reminder that while we may consider ourselves masters of technology, if you’ve ever wrapped a Fitbit around your wrist – horrid little things – you’ll understand this isn’t the case. “Untamed” laments that some wild animals, despite our best intentions (and delicious peace offerings like free-range chicken), are simply not meant for domestication.

A multi-essay arc involving a particularly grotesque snapping turtle and the wonderful use of an excised tumor should make some readers cringe while causing others to nod in approval at the creative recycling of human waste: “There was no reason to let a perfectly good lipoma go to waste.”

Politics crop up now and then, such as when Sedaris exalts the arrival of legalized gay marriage – and potential tax write-offs that come with it – in “A Modest Proposal”. Given recent events, there’s no way he could ignore the 239-pound elephant in the room – Donald J. Trump. The unlikely US President features heavily in “A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately” (from The Paris Review) and, to a lesser extent, “The Comey Memo”, where Sedaris segues from the former FBI director into perhaps the most frustrating piece he’s ever written.

Like many humorists before him, Sedaris’ essaying of his life predates the current era of social media everything and anything, though he’s been able to merge the two forums in highly potent fashion. His live performances have become legendary for his theatrics and extended meet and greets, which can stretch on for hours (note: this virtuosity is captured on audiobook versions of his books, especially in this volume, which features several live readings of essays in lieu of his usual narration).

That said, I’m curious if other longtime followers have begun to feel as I have. His essays, books, live performances, etc., have been called “hilarious” and “funny” so often I’ve begun to question if that’s even the right ballpark, adjectively speaking. True, he’s one of the funniest, most acerbic observers of human nature we’ve got, but I’ve never actually “guffawed” or openly “chortled” while reading or listening.

His father, well into his 90s and still living by himself, is an avid fan of Fox News, talk radio and, of course, a fervent Trump supporter. Sedaris hints there were many arguments on the subject, though most occur off-page. With only Sedaris’ description the father is reduced to literally crawling on the floor, bruising himself with a bumbling senility that made me uncomfortable. As one of the most widely read writers out there, Sedaris commands an audience of millions, many of whom share his political ideology. By juxtaposing his father’s vulnerabilities as a surrogacy for what he – and so many – feel is the ‘average Trump voter’ there’s a stink of Schadenfreude that doesn’t sit well.

Within the self-contained world Sedaris has crafted over the years, his blend of tragicomedy has caused some to question the authenticity of his work as ‘real’ or simply exaggerated for effect. The truth is probably closer to the middle. And that’s what makes reviewing a collection like Calypso so frustrating,. David Sedaris is a writer whose work has been described, often in the same breath, as cruel and hilarious, superficial yet poignant. As much as life itself is filled with its own messy contradictions we often tend to focus a little too much on the adjectives, and so little on the actions.