David Sedaris is known primarily as a humorist, yet the stories in Calypso aren’t funny. It’s entirely by design that this collection of essays doesn’t exactly cause you to bust a gut the way his earlier work has, and it’s a quality that befits the stylistic changes Sedaris’ writing has slowly been undertaking over his last few books. When you delve into the essays in Calypso, you’ll often find that he takes his time getting to the point, either choosing to meander into his topic by way of a non sequitur, or by connecting a present-day anecdote to past experiences by way of a frame narrative.
As Sedaris explains when I ask him about his evolving writing style, he brings up his “accidental” foray into nonfiction through “The Santaland Diaries”, his breakthrough essay, and writing about his own life for This American Life on NPR. “Ira [Glass] would say, ‘our theme this week is going to be music lessons,’ so then I’d write an essay about that [“Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities”, Me Talk Pretty One Day, 2000]. Ira wants the story to be underway within two paragraphs.” Of the stories in Calypso, only “The One(s) Who Got Away”, which clocks in at under four Kindle pages, has the same directness, the same restriction to one topic in one conversation, as in his earlier material. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013), with its essays on topics from catching turtles as a child to getting a colonoscopy, is really where Sedaris’ exploration of this more lackadaisical format becomes evident. It’s a book of mixed results with stories like “A Friend in the Ghetto” and “The Happy Place”, versus the satisfying romanticism of “A Guy Walks Into a Bar Car”, where Sedaris takes stock of two crushes he’d entertained on fellow train passengers years apart.
In contrast to Sedaris’ preceding essay collections, Calypso‘s focus is narrow; it’s the bottle episode of Sedaris’ books, if you will, with his new beach house in North Carolina a kind of lodestar, a reference point, a central location through which he threads the different stories about his family and to which these stories continually return. Of course, the house isn’t just a house—it’s his commitment to his family in material form, a place where they have gathered together over the past few years. The specter of the loss of his youngest sister Tiffany to suicide, first revealed in 2015’s New Yorker article, “Now We Are Five“, hangs over the stories in Calypso like a cloud, lingering like a ghost in the background. To read Calypso is to see in Sedaris a shift from the frustrated, sometimes grudging enjoyment of his family’s foibles we’re familiar with, to a more urgent realization that they’re no longer young, and that they only have so much time together left on this earth.
Calypso paradoxically uses this wandering, almost distracted-seeming style of storytelling within the overall themes of the book to conjure a sense of Sedaris traveling through his own thoughts, getting lost on particular charming tangents about his siblings before coming back to what he ultimately wants you to take away. The first essay in Calypso, “Company Man”, is framed around Sedaris’ naked enjoyment of being well-off enough to have multiple guest rooms in his homes. Yet as the essay continues, Sedaris merely uses that sense of success and satisfaction as a pretense for an overall aura of loss, setting the tone for the rest of the book. It’s an acknowledgement that even though he can buy anything he wants, and provide for everyone he loves, there are things and people that are lost and gone. After all, who’s going to stay in his multiple guest rooms if not his sisters, brother, father, and other loved ones?
After you place “Now We Are Five” into shattering context as the second of more than two dozen essays in Calypso, even the more amusing tales of shopping for artfully destroyed clothing and dealing with gastrointestinal viruses exude a somber sort of introspection. Stories that appear to follow patterns established in previous books soon take a turn for the meditative. In “Untamed”, Sedaris becomes emotionally invested in a wild fox prowling around in West Sussex, until she disappears. The story ends with Sedaris looking out over his yard, calling for a companion who will never return—a companion who only ever saw him as a repository of delicious meats. In stories like “April in Paris” (When You Are Engulfed in Flames, 2008), Sedaris’ fixation with befriending wild animals (in this case a spider) comes across as charming if eccentric, but as befits the tone of Calypso, “Untamed” asks whether the gesture was anything more than futile in the first place.
Calypso has arrived at the perfect moment as a literary equivalent of the recent wave of prestige comedies—shows like Transparent, BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst, Barry, Louie—that are comedies in name only, because the star actors are those we associate with comedy, and the format fits into the half-hour television slot, we sort them into the category of comedy. The essays in Calypso follow a similar model. They’re comedic because they’re in that familiar essayistic format by noted humorist David Sedaris, but at their core they’re as melancholy as anything he’s ever written. The moments that make you laugh out loud are few and far between, used as a garnish rather than forming the meat of the story. The sharpness and exaggerated pettiness of his earliest books are all but gone, replaced with a gentler sort of wryness that, one assumes, comes with the wisdom of middle age and experience. When a David Sedaris story made you feel wistful, it used to be the exception; in Calypso, it’s the rule.
* * *
Sedaris is now in his early 60s; his mother died at age 62 of lung cancer, before he’d published his first book. His father, now in his 90s, is rendered in Calypso with a tender introspection, a reflection on their often-difficult relationship that far complicates the way Sedaris has written about him for decades. Tellingly, when I ask Sedaris if he has any regrets—any essays or aspects of his earlier work he wishes he could do differently—he reveals that he’s now “more inclined to give my dad a break”, particularly in the story “Ashes” (Naked, 1996), which details how his family reacted to Sharon Sedaris’ cancer diagnosis and passing. “When my mom died, we were all so angry at my dad for the way he treated her, but what did I know about a long-term relationship? I knew nothing at the time that I wrote that story. Having been with somebody for twenty-six years […] you don’t ever know what goes on in a marriage. Even if you’re living in a house with it, you don’t know what goes on.”
Thus in stories from Calypso like “The Silent Treatment”, “Why Aren’t You Laughing?”, and “The Comey Memo”, the man we know from Sedaris’ writing as the father who kicked him out of the house for being gay, the father whom Sedaris could never impress or please, is given a more nuanced portrait. Sedaris presents him today as cantankerous and crotchety, but also congenial and affectionate to a degree that shocks Sedaris. Yet in the picture we get of Lou, he’s also lonely, living alone in the house Sedaris grew up in, surrounded by increasingly broken appliances, asking himself whether it was his fault that Sharon was an alcoholic, or wondering whether Tiffany’s suicide was the family’s fault. It’s as if the bits and pieces we’ve read of him over the years have now been assembled into a rendering of a real person.
Sedaris’ mother also gets the most multifaceted look we’ve seen of her in “Why Aren’t You Laughing?”, where Sedaris no longer hints at her drinking problem by referencing “hearty jugs of burgundy” in multiple earlier books, but addresses it outright. The way he describes how his mother would embellish a story to get the telling of it just right is reminiscent of how Sedaris has been accused of massaging his own essays, eliding pure truth to maximize effect. “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” also uses Sedaris’ newer writing style to create a sense of whiplash when we go from Sedaris preparing to sign his name to five thousand pieces of paper, to watching A&E’s Intervention, to explicitly talking about his mother’s alcoholism. There’s an oblique sense of “what-if” threaded through this essay, the choices not made, where absence still stings, that finds an echo in “The Spirit World”, where Sedaris reveals that the last time he saw Tiffany, he turned his back on her, both literally and figuratively.
With Calypso‘s heavy themes of death and loss tempered with enjoyment of creature comforts and materialism, it’s fascinating to try and puzzle out who David Sedaris’ audience is in 2018. Who is Calypso for, and who is Sedaris’ oeuvre for? Is it for liberals who listen to This American Life? For well-off retirees? For middle school students who will appreciate the various feces-related anecdotes Sedaris has amassed over time? When I ask Sedaris about his audience, he mentions that he’s compelled by the range of people who come to his readings; he wants to ask the people who are getting their books signed, “Why do you like me?”
Sedaris notes that he’s become subject material in some school classes, and that when teachers have students send him questions, he’ll get letters expressing admiration, that he’s a source of inspiration to misfit kids—a comrade-in-arms who became a success. Surely Theft By Finding (2017), which includes diary entries from Sedaris at his most broke and drug-addicted, provides hope in hindsight. On the other hand, Sedaris divulges, a particularly scathing student wrote: “You must have a lot of time on your hands if you have the time to sit and write about some of this boring stuff you write about. I don’t get it.” The changes in Sedaris’ storytelling style, too, seem to have revealed a common characteristic of his audience: that they are willing to read along with the detours and flights of fancies that may seem to be arbitrary at first, but are ultimately rewarding.