David Sedaris' latest, Calypso, is both great and maddening
When it comes to brutal honesty, David Sedaris has the nonfiction market cornered. The shock of total candor in his latest book, Calypso, is turned up. But even so, the author—as ever—turns his harsh wit on himself just as often as he makes victims of reality TV show participants and his family. It's that level of self deprecation that manages to make Sedaris remain charming, even as he sacrifices others at the altar of clever writing with the promise that it will be meaningful.
Calypso is darker than many of his previous works—here Sedaris addresses aging, his mother's alcoholism and returns to the suicide of his sister Tiffany. A reviewer for the Washington Post observed that, “Sedaris is practically his own genre now,” and that couldn't be more accurate. With legions of followers and his own brand built and scaled up every few years, Sedaris has reached fame that few authors dream of. But after revealing so much of himself in so many collections—what is left to say?
Firstly, there are observations to be made about the current state of political affairs in the US and navigating conversations on the topic with Republican family members—though the effect of these scenes is more hackneyed “you're wrong, I'm right” emotion than anything more nuanced. Yet I'm sure most of his readers don't need much convincing on these points. There is also the foundational humor which somehow never becomes tiresome. Not least among these delightfully lunatic tales: feeding a snapping turtle a benign tumor. Where the book moves from lighthearted to more cutting is where Sedaris looks deeply into his family's past and grapples with the pathos of his parents, his siblings and himself.
In an essay in the collection titled “The Silent Treatment,” Sedaris takes on his aging father's turn from stern, distant breadwinner to elderly curmudgeon. Acknowledging how difficult he was to raise, Sedaris describes flushing empty toilet paper rolls down the toilet, continually clogging the house's plumbing. His father would, exasperated, fetch the plunger and reach into the drain to remove the offending objects. Upon discovering a young David as the perpetrator, he tells him, “You're going to reach down this drain and pick out that cardboard roll,” and forces his hand into the literal drain, while giving the young writer a great metaphor for his most potent work. Sedaris aptly observes, “and there it has been ever since, sorting through our various shit.”
Life gets both bleaker and funnier in Sedaris' books. You carry that amused cynicism out into the world with you when you're deep in the throes of reading one. Sedaris has a way of distilling some of our worst impulses as a species into something more telling—slightly oblique to the point itself—but way more amusing than any sermonizing. For example, in one of the first essays, Sedaris waxes poetic on Jesus Christ. “In Sunday-school books and the sorts of pictures they sell at Christian supply stores, he falls somewhere between Kenny Loggins and Jared Leto. … And he always has a fantastic body, shown at its best on the cross, which—face it—was practically designed to make a man's stomach and shoulders look good.” He goes on to muse pointedly, “What would happen, I often wonder, if someone sculpted a morbidly obese Jesus with titties and acne scars, and hair on his back?” Concluding: “'Sacrilege!' people would shout. But why? Doing good deeds doesn't make you good-looking.”
These sorts of observations and the precise, funny way they are put to paper are delightful to read. Sometimes, however, the perspective from which Sedaris writes makes them profoundly miss the mark for me. In “Your English is So Good” Sedaris takes on the rote upselling and vapidness of capitalism—but dumbs this all down to what reads as a critique of service industry workers. Describing an interaction with an unfortunate hotel clerk he writes, “I just wanted to get a rise out of her, to feel a pulse. … I don't need a fifteen-minute conversation, just some human interaction.” He goes on, “'I'm not just a vehicle for my wallet!' I sometimes want to scream.” This makes me roll my eyes hard. What kind of privilege is this man writing from? (Read his essay on shopping and you'll get an idea.) Has he never had to work in customer service? Some of us are just at work and we would rather perform the necessary task of checking you in and then get back to whatever we were doing in the interval between customers than give you access to our humanity and charm you for your money.
When he's at his best in Calypso, Sedaris is—without too many jokes—revealing parts of himself that are hard to look at. The deterioration of the relationship between him and his sister who later commits suicide is one example. When we are able to see the world through the prism of Sedaris' unabashed—daring, even—honesty, we are offered an opportunity to learn about ourselves, too. Those sometimes hard truths go down easy when tempered with so much on-point, off-kilter humor.
Davis Sedaris will read from and discuss Calypso on Tuesday, June 19 at 6pm at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW). Tickets are sold out, but all are welcome to the book signing following the talk.