Book Review: Calypso - David Sedaris

Calypso - David Sedaris

Comedy is a very subjective thing. I've never read David Sedaris before, but I'm assured by Jonathan Ross that he is "the funniest writer alive today", the Guardian think he's "brilliantly clever, inventive and funny", and the Spectator call him "one of the biggest comedy writers of his generation". If you don't trust back-cover blurb endorsements, well the evidence is there that Sedaris has a huge following for his books and his appearances on the literary circuit. Me? Well, I don't think my quote of "Meh' will feature on the back of the next book.

On the other hand, that was merely my initial reaction to Calypso, perhaps expecting a little too much from all these high claims about David Sedaris as a comedy genius. By the time I'd finished the book, finding myself drawn in and getting through the book surprisingly quickly, I had warmed to his style a little more. Still not a ringing endorsement, I know, so maybe it's worth looking a little more closely and seeing if we can come up with anything better.

The reason I wasn't initially taken with Calypso was that I didn't find that Sedaris's experience and view of life didn't really have much in common with my own. The things that he finds amusing, odd, unusual and worthy of commentary are not the things that I can relate to in any meaningful way. The thing you have to realise about Sedaris is that his work is largely the autobiographical, confessional and observational points of a middle-aged gay man, American born but living in West Sussex with a beach holiday home in North Carolina. He writes about his experiences with colourful family members, his domestic disputes and differences of opinion with his partner, and stranger comments that he picks up from visitors, taxi drivers and random people he meets at his book readings and signings.

The topics that he covers then - at least in the first part of the book - appear to be rather random and not those most people would experience. He writes about his enthusiasm for Fitbit monitors, about walking and collecting rubbish in the nearby countryside - and some of the unusual objects that you can find discarded there - and his love for extravagant designer clothes from expensive stores in Japan. If you've ever seen a picture of Sedaris wearing culottes in his late fifties, it can rather put you off any feeling that you might be able to relate to where he is coming from. It's hard to tell whether it's a fashion statement or a comedy statement.

In the midst of all that however some nice little observations are dropped in there. Nothing side-splittingly funny, but his ability to laugh at the absurdity of life and some of his own quirks is amusing. Mostly however, it's the gentle conversational tone of his writing and his wary incomprehension about whether most people would also find this kind of thing as unusual - this is weird, right, isn't it? It's not just me? - takes on a sympathetic tone as you begin to wonder how he has managed to surround himself with a family and a partner whose quirks of behaviour are definitely not normal. Or perhaps it's the fact that we all constantly wonder at other people's beliefs, reactions and behaviours that is common and relatable.

Sedaris's ability to sum up the characteristics in people is unerringly good, amusing and concise, summing it up with a well-chosen illustrative example, a neat turn of phrase and the occasional punchline. While that sounds light and harmless enough, Sedaris does tackle some bigger subjects -life, death, old-age and Trump - with a similar bewilderment about why everyone doesn't also think a lot of our (his family and friends) reactions to these subjects are normal. The suicide of his sister takes place around the time of the writing of Calypso and the strangeness and sadness of it feeds through the whole book and gives those thoughts on human behaviour a whole other complexion.

So I kept on reading Calypso. Actually, I never even got around to using a proper bookmark for it, just marked my page with a book of stamps that I had to hand, not thinking that I'd be seeing this through to the end, that I would let it drop after a few more pages, after the next chapter, or maybe the one after that. We'll see how it goes. I had to read it through to the end. And I might read the next one (or go back to Theft by Finding, which I have on my shelf but never managed to fit into my schedule). Read it through to the end, might read the next one and even go back to the last one I didn't read. Still not exactly a ringing endorsement. How about four stars then?

Calypso by David Sedaris is published by Little, Brown on 5th July 2018

Amazon UK - Calypso

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