BooksWeekend

Open Doors and Wounds in David Sedaris’s Calypso

David Sedaris’s Calypso is an intimate portrait of a writer who has, for so long, shared his entire life with a captivated audience.

If you spend a little time digging online and in literary magazines, you’ll find echoes of the same in the way in which writers have spoken, or speak, about David Sedaris’s colossal body of work. In fact, so much scholarship and so many responses to Sedaris’s work have been published that they’ve created the Sedarian genre (my word processor doesn’t even try to correct the term). But it seems that every Sedarian critic has in common both a strict set of expectations and a familiarity with the works that came before the one they are tasked to review. This is where I come in, nestled at the intersection of the naive and the knowledgeable. I’d heard that Calypso was different from his previous books and addressed timely issues. I’ve never read a Sedaris book before and to start with Calypso seemed important.

With a literary career spanning over twenty-five years and including nine essay collections, it’s clear that Sedaris has established himself as the foremost contemporary sardonic writer. He’s become a master at using the minutia of everyday life as a stepping stone for profoundly ironic or shockingly poignant observations on how we either stay alive or fail to do so. Sedaris isn’t a writer who observes others and uses their experiences as literary juice. It’s his own experiences that endow his narration with such richness, and it’s our understanding of the author as quintessentially human that makes its appeal and relevance universal.

But before I begin to generalize about one writer’s process, let’s look at the book itself, which, is a departure from his other essay collections. For starters, Sedaris and his publisher have chosen to label it a book of stories, rather than essays. So, an amateur Sedarian might think this was a work of fiction — and it doesn’t help that Sedaris calls his stories “realish.” But, even without in-depth knowledge about the author and his motivations — which I can only assume were to delve deeper into his complicated and odd relationship with his family — it’s viscerally clear that the stories are weighted with lived experience. This seeps out of every line, from an awkwardly placed scatological anecdote to the bleak reflection on aging and death to the memory of a full house both in his childhood home in Raleigh, North Carolina, and for the great majority of his adult life.

Calypso immediately goes for the literary gold, jumping into the Sedaris family’s complicated dynamics, and the author’s difficulty dealing with his sister Tiffany’s suicide. Splitting his time between Sussex, England — where he lives with his partner Hugh — and Emerald Isle, North Carolina (at a house he calls the Sea Section), Sedaris finally organizes the family gathering everyone wants. Except, this time, everyone is older, their father nearing a century, their mother has passed away from cancer, and their sister, Tiffany, is no longer part of the gang. In “Now We Are Five,” Sedaris writes:

Though I’d often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost faith in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everybody else. It’s an archaic belief, one I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but I still hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting.

Tiffany’s suicide was the catastrophic event that not only made everyone in the family closer, but made Sedaris question his own character; he systematically disapproved of her life choices — for example, when she decided to cancel her checking account and barter instead. Each irrational decision Tiffany made created a larger space between the two, until it was too late to make up for lost time. Nonetheless, his narrative renders a comedic moment — though it’s not comedic in that it’s funny. It’s comedic in that it makes you smile through the realization of the humanity embedded in tragedy. If this is one example of what is quintessentially human in Sedaris’s work, it’s definitely not the only one.

While Sedaris addresses his family’s trouble coping with death and loss, he also looks at what happens to families when they starts to age. In two specific stories, “The Silent Treatment” and “Boo-Hooey,” he turns to his relationship with his father and his mother’s death. It’s precisely this experience with youth and old age that propels Sedaris’s stories to a different level. In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes breaks down in response to a photo of his mother as a young woman, realizing she lived a life before his birth. Here, the 61-year-old author directly confronts the life his mother has lived by acknowledging what they share, as well as the fear that consumes him at the thought of living beyond her years. In “Boo-Hooey,” he writes:

In our visits my mother is always sixty-two, the age she was when she died. In 1991 that seemed old to me, though now, of course, I’m almost there myself. Before I know it, she and I will be contemporaries. Then I’ll overtake her, and how strange will that be, to have a mother young enough to be my daughter? When that day comes, will I think her naïve?

Whereas outliving his dead mother inspires Sedaris to consider his own mortality, the thought of exacerbating the silence that overtakes each conversation with his father is petrifying. In “The Silent Treatment,” he writes:

The silence my father and I inflicted on each other back then is now exacerbated by his advanced age. Every time I see him could be the last, and the pressure I feel to make our conversation meaningful paralyzes me.

Perhaps this has to do with his father’s constant pestering: for example, he implores Sedaris to get a check-up from the doctor, reminding him on a daily basis that if he doesn’t take care of himself, he’ll end up dead like other family members. It’s the pressure to remain alive that seems to scare Sedaris. He’s fine living; he just freezes when living becomes a mandate.

Yet, it’s a mandate that Sedaris can’t help but extend to his readers, particularly in the Trump era. He writes: “The deal with America is that it’s always something. I go twice a year and arrive each time on the heels of a major news story: SARS, anthrax, H1N1, Bedbugs!” The most recent disease to take over the United States is Donald Trump, who is the source of many of Sedaris’ ills. In “A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately,” he explains, pre-election, that the country is in the process of burying itself alive by supporting a candidate who deserves no more than a reality TV show. To drive his point home, he relates the story of having a lipoma removed from his stomach and his desire to feed it to a turtle he encounters on Emerald Island and befriends. The turtle, with a deformed foot and a tumor of his own, is not around when Sedaris attempts to feed him the lipoma, so he puts it in his freezer until the right time comes. In a sense, we’re all holding onto our frozen tumor, waiting for the right time to get rid of it. Perhaps that time might be 2020.

But Calypso is not a series of metaphors through which we can understand the current state of affairs, however necessary it may be for writers to help us grasp our place in the world. It is an intimate portrait of a writer who has, for so long, shared his entire life with a captivated audience. As a first-time Sedaris reader, I understand why I was drawn to this particular book and why his work is so important — why, as a gay man, it’s vital for me to read works by members of the community who choose not to let their sexuality define them and who, instead of assenting to mainstream expectations, choose to understand themselves merely as human and finite.

Calypso by David Sedaris (2018) is published by Little, Brown and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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