Sunday 26 May 2019

The Cranky Book Reviewer read Calypso by David Sedaris

(She’s cranky because she’ll never write anything as good)

Sometimes, good books just upset me.

I love David Sedaris. 

I love his stories about his family, his lifetime of strange jobs, projects, travel and art, all told in his distinctive self-deprecating tone. So when a writer friend recently recommended his newest book, Calypso, as one of his best, I was ready to love it, too.

Laughing at a funeral

My friend Mike committed suicide in his late twenties. At the time, I hadn't seen or heard from him in about ten years. The strongest (and best?) memories I have of him are few: in high school, he used a ridiculously expensive shampoo to make his hair feel soft. Once, he was in a terrible car accident, and a few of us visited him in the hospital, where he waxed poetic about how wonderful Demerol was, but later, yelled at us because "nobody came to visit him". And then there was the time he shot me in the eye with a BB gun.

We weren't close, to say the least, and lost touch after high school. But, I went to his funeral.  It was sad and solemn, and he was buried as a soldier. It was the first time that I'd understood what funerals were really about: connecting with old friends over memories of the deceased and laughing about what a jerk he could be. I probably would never have seen any of them again if Mike hadn’t shot himself. 

In Calypso, David Sedaris gets that mixture right: sad, tragic and poignant, while observing the absurdity around him, making motifs of death — aging,  illness, addiction, suicide — funny between the tears. He combines these themes in a way that feels sacrilegious and blasphemous and wrong, but natural and real, and a celebration of the life that was or is being lost. Just like laughing at a funeral.

Ugliness and Beauty and Truth

My first exposure to Sedaris' work was When We Are Engulfed in Flames. As my introduction to his style of essays, it was a shocking start, a study in the twisted and macabre that was somehow beautiful and hilarious. I was an instant fan. I still regret lending it to a coworker, who never gave it back.

I don't lend my Sedarises out anymore 

I now own most of his collections: Me Talk Pretty One Day, Barrel Fever, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Some are better (funnier) than others, but all are  incredibly good. The stories themselves are fantastic: they're guilty peeks into a painful upbringing, awkward relationships, and not being really happy with who you are and what you have done, and what you will, no doubt, continue to do, in such a very, very human way. But it's the way he tells them that shows his skill as a storyteller: his tone, his timing, his twists and throwbacks to something mentioned in another part of the essay... each essay is a carefully-planned marvel.

Over the course of his writing career, his growth as an author has been astounding, inspirational. His early work was strong (and I highly recommend it as well), but each collection is more well-crafted than the last.

It gives me hope. Although I dislike (strongly) his forays into fiction (or obvious fiction, that is -- he has admitted to exaggerating for the sake of a good story), Calypso is full of only anecdotes, many continued from or referring to those in past collections ... and it was perfect.  

In this group of essays, against a backdrop of his own mortality and that of his mother, father and sisters, he exposes the strength of family and familiarity, of how people we love (and love itself) evolves over time. People are funny, absurd, weird, waspish and cutting, horrible and kind. They're real, and he captures that beautifully on every page, weaving seemingly unrelated episodes together.

Um, isn't this called the Cranky Book Reviewer...?

Oh, right.  So while I found this book perfect, the cranky part of me has something to say, too.  

First, unless you've read a great deal of Sedaris' other work, I'm pretty sure you'll be missing a lot of context, like the Ship Shape backstory, or his strained and dysfunctional relationship with his father and sister. Because I've read so much of him, I can't tell how much this will alter or lessen the impact of the stories for Sedaris virgins, but for me, it was like finally hearing the next chapter of a story I already knew.  

Call me maybe

Secondly, he's on the short list of Authors I'd Like to Meet. Always haunted by Gustave Flaubert  ("We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers"), I have never gone to any book-signing or author meet-up, but I would take that chance with David Sedaris.

We have so much in common: he's had a lifelong struggle with learning languages! He had a speech impediment as a child! He lives in England! We should be friends! However, I feel preemptively sad and rejected; he would despise me and find me uninteresting. My childhood was too normal, my struggles too middle-class, and I’m not mean or artsy enough to hang out with him. It's my own fault, but I don't have to feel good about it.   

Dammit, Kate

Finally, I was cranky -- no, devastated -- when I finished the book, because, well, I finished it. Like all wonderful, perfect, absorbing books, it had to come to an end. Rationally, I knew that, but I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I even sent a scathing text to the friend who had recommended it in the first place. I should have paced myself, read one essay a night and chewed over them the next day before rereading them again. Instead, I read it for an hour at a time for four days. I was foolish, and now it's over, and again, I have no-one to blame but myself.

I'm impatient now, and demand that he publish another collection, right now. But I know that this will take some time, and in the meantime, I'll reread his other collections again and pick up the threads of the stories he has woven. I'll wonder again how on earth he managed to turn such normal/weird/sad/funny events into such beauty, and fear that I'll never be able to even come close.

And that makes me really cranky.

Get your own copy!  But don't lend it to Mary.

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