Calypso, a collection of 21 essays and sketches by David Sedaris holds no surprises – not a bad thing, necessarily. As a professional kvetch and cartographer of foibles global and intimate for more than two decades, Sedaris has refined his schtick to an airtight formula: tight, confessional essays that juxtapose the quotidian and ephemeral, the profane and profound. In the collection’s highlight, “I’m Still Standing”, for example, he contemplates the nature of mortality and entropy while he frets about the possibility of shitting himself in public as he grows infirm with age.
In middle age, living in a bucolic English village with his long-time partner Hugh, Sedaris is the model of success. He is wealthy enough to purchase a holiday house and name it with a miserable pun – “The Sea Section” – for his family to converge upon for holidays. Far from his tortured, misanthropic youth, he is seemingly happy, which appears to discombobulate him completely. To fill the hours, he wanders the countryside collecting litter – his local council has named a garbage truck in his honour. This tracks as a neat metaphor for where he seems to find inspiration.
Sedaris and his writing meander through the world seizing on little exemplars of absurdity – American cashiers, Japanese fashion, Fitbits and Apple Watches (he wears one of each on the same wrist) – as a vehicle to explore deeper, recurrent themes. These are familiar topics: family, regrets, and in these essays, the shadow of mortality that hangs over the Sedaris clan as later life approaches.
The idea that the author has fewer years ahead than behind weighs heavily on this collection, and death lurks from page to page. Sedaris contemplates his father – who, as death approaches, becomes a more sympathetic character than the tyrant depicted in earlier writings. The suicide of his sister Tiffany also haunts the collection as a source of guilt, of bafflement, of morbid humour and bonding between the surviving siblings.
The most touching writing in Calypso eulogises his mother, who drank herself to death while the family lived in denial of her alcoholism. The sharp sound of her putting ice into a drink becomes “like a trigger being cocked”. With turns of phrase such as this, Sedaris shows he is perfectly capable of poignant, emotive, even devastating writing – he just prefers the juicier, lower-hanging fruit of family and the familiar, and the reliable punchlines to be harvested there. ZC
Little, Brown, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "David Sedaris, Calypso ". Subscribe here.