I did not, until now, understand why David Sedaris is regarded as one of the best essayist and satirists writing today. But while reading his latest book, Calypso, a collection of razor-sharp essays, I experienced his unusual, renegade-style sense of humour, his impressively acute perception of human emotions and trains of thought, and his spot-on depiction of the subtle ebbs and flows in relationships. Now I know what all the fuss is about.
David and Hugh
Calypso is largely autobiographical. Is it fictional? Perhaps in part, because sometimes those incidents are just too strange and too perfectly funny to be all true. But when it comes to his partner, everything sounds real. Sedaris is, by his own admission, short and slight. His partner, Hugh Hamrick, about whom he writes frequently in these stories, is tall and manly. The relationship between the two is depicted so authentically that it is quite funny, and this is partly because Sedaris writes conversations the way people naturally express themselves:
“When visitors leave, I feel like an actor watching the audience file out the theatre, and it was no different with my sisters. The show over, Hugh and I returned to lesser versions of ourselves. We’re not a horrible couple, but we have our share of fights, the type that can start with a misplaced sock and suddenly be about everything. ‘I haven’t liked you since 2002,’ he hissed during a recent argument over which airport security line was moving the fastest. This didn’t hurt me so much as confuse me. ‘What happened in 2002?’ I asked.”Calypso, by David Sedaris: “Company Man”, p. 13
I can just picture the scene. I think many couples could recognize that kind of tiff. The exchanges between the two are sometimes brief and bitchy. Their real-life family get-togethers must be a hoot.
The issues and themes of the essays are of our times – Fitbits, politics, drug use, vacations, houses, work, an ancient snapping turtle with a messed-up head, and the trials of growing old and having an old parent. At times I laughed, other times I thought, sadly, yes, that’s it.
The last essay, The Comey Memo, is about his fractious relationship with his elderly and grumpy father, who is living like a pauper in order to, illogically, leave more to all his children except Sedaris. It made me sit there and swallow an enormous lump in my throat. Damn, that is exactly me and my mother. The same discomfort, the same putting-up-with, the same endless worry of what to do, if to do, when to do, and the same reluctant love.
What is the point though?
There is a deeper, more abstract idea tying the strands together in every essay. Sometimes the elements in a piece look random. For instance, what has a stomach bug, a Fitbit, and a book tour got to do with keeping up appearances? In this case, the underlying theme is the trait of stubbornness that runs in him and his siblings and parents, for better or worse. It also reveals the rising fear he has of getting old and weak and humiliating himself. The essays may have been published over the years in different magazines, but they are highly consistent in style and themes.
In Calypso, the essay which gives the anthology its name, he decides he wants to have a lipoma (a harmless fatty tumour) excised, but his doctor insists it is against the law to give him the excised tissue. Sedaris wants to feed the tissue to the ancient turtle at his beach house, which eats anything, even marshmallows. Since the doctor refuses, Sedaris says OK when someone at one of his book signings, whom he doesn’t know from a bar of soap, offers to do it.
The whole thing is crazy, mysterious and just the sort of mad thing that Sedaris occasionally goes for. As he says – “it’s my tumour. I made it”. The deeper theme is that he is someone who can’t stand too much political correctness and social restriction. The lipoma incident is one of those kicks against convention.
I thought he perhaps sees a bit of himself in that one-eyed, skew-headed, gazillion-year-old, crud-eating turtle that just keeps on keeping on.
The Sedaris clan as characters
In this collection, though I do not know if that is the case in his other books, Sedaris is self-deprecating. His parents sisters and relatives are all characters in his essays, and they all have their quirks. I wonder what they think about all this – but I guess after his long career in writing and his talent for satire they must be used to it. His habits, like walking a certain number of steps per day, and gathering up litter while he is at it, and saying random weird things to strangers (for instance, pretending to be a doctor while in Japan), paints a picture of a person who’s a bunch of contradictions and peculiarities, yet, likeable – a real Mench who has a needle-sharp mind but also shows disarming vulnerability.
The stories are not for shrinking violets who dare not read about the “p” and the “v” and the “s” words. (Stop here if you are, here comes a quote.) On encountering a cow in a field in the process of giving birth to a calf that is half in and half out, he compares the cow’s condition to the pain of eliminating his own kidney stones:
“What might I have thought if, after seven hours of unrelenting agony, a creature the size of a full-grown cougar emerged inch by inch from the hole the end of my penis and started hassling me for food?”Calypso, by David Sedaris: “Stepping Out”, p. 46
What a mental image. That made me cringe and laugh at the same time.
Sad and/but funny
The stories start with the overdose death of his sister, Tiffany. That later becomes The Spirit World, the story of the evening that she pitches up at the stage door at one of his shows, in a bad state and wearing shoes that look like they were taken from a garbage bin, and he gets the security guard to close the door on her. And they do not speak again in all the years afterwards, until she dies. That rang a bell with me. Perhaps is will ring a bell with most people. Haven’t we all, out of necessity and self-preservation, cut someone from our lives? No? Well, it will still cause a wince when you read it. Sedaris does not flinch from writing about uncomfortable truths and human weaknesses, particularly his own, and neither should his readers:
“Honestly, though, does choice even come into it? Is it my fault that the good times fade to nothing while the bad ones burn forever bright? Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story: the plane was delayed, an infection set in, outlaws arrived and reduced the schoolhouse to ashes. Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.”Calypso, by David Sedaris: “Leviathan”, pp. 91-92
I will concede that I was wrong about Sedaris. After having read his 2010 collection of fables for adults, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, I thought his talents were overstated. But I liked Calypso very much. I think it is a “keeper”, as “Goldmember” says in the Austin Powers movie. I now understand why people in my local bookstore were looking for his books and exclaiming, “He’s SO funny!” Black humour, then. But now I agree. He certainly is good.