Backwater for Elephants: “Happy-Go-Lucky” by David Sedaris
On David Sedaris, Mike Leigh, Tracy Jordan, and being a little out of touch
A couple of friends and I found ourselves drifting around the Upper West Side after a movie at Lincoln Center, recounting our observations as a warmish breeze ran between the negative space between us. We had seen Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, the English director’s film about the creative partnership between Gilbert and Sullivant and the production of their comic operetta The Mikado.
“Best use of yellowface in film,” I mentioned, cheekily. We commented on the sumptuous production design, that it took place not too long before Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and how it could be situated within the filmmaker’s oeuvre in respect to class. Leigh, who was present at the screening, nodded to this fact: a director whose primary concerns had been built, hitherto, around the lives of contemporary working-class English people decided to subvert those expectations with a tale of, yes, people at work, but bourgeois people at work. Surrounded by velvet, hugged by well-made corsets, gulping down oysters only to pay a dear price. This wasn’t the set that Leigh normally worked with.
But, I observed to my friends, Leigh was one of the few working directors who, within his own little niche, had both become more prominent as a director but retained his interest and commitment to telling stories of working-class people, that his ascending status didn’t change his passion for burrowing into the lives of a particular milieu. This compared to filmmakers like Todd Haynes or Pedro Almodovar, auteurs whose origins could be found in the grimy margins of the streets of Madrid or a prison out of a Jenet story. Since their growing fame in the film world, their works were as likely to feature fur coats and minimalism marbled counters. I mean, in a way, who can blame them? Maybe it’s unfair of me to lodge those complaints against the two, since they both share a love for the kind of melodrama that, well, does involve moneyed people.
On the train home, we discussed what we were reading, the titles of which had to be repeated over the screeching wheels. I said I was reading Happy-Go-Lucky, the new essay collection by David Sedaris. One friend, Ethan, (somewhat erroneously) recalled an Internet backlash against the writer, and although he had gotten the set-up and context incorrect, his general assessment was basically true: a satirical piece on CBS Sunday Morning on customer service expectations, which aired during pandemic, was received poorly. (Every time I had posted that I was reading the book on social media [read: twice], Ethan would message me, nodding to the Sally Hawkins-starring film of the same name by the director whose work we’d just seen, “I love Mike Leigh.”) He recalled the 30 Rock cutaway gag of Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) bombing a standup set, his bit about the peculiarities of eating lobster. The joke is that he, so rich that he wears his money at some point during the series, is laughably, uncomfortably out of touch.
At times, it seems like in Happy-Go-Lucky, the humorist’s tenth collection of essays (not including diaries or his best-of collection), Sedaris might be wondering if he might be the same thing, too.
In another world, I would have liked to interview the writer that basically changed my life. I would have liked to ask him about his relationship to memory, how much he felt his own memories were his as opposed to endlessly reproducible artifacts for others to consume, how his writing process has changed, how he makes sense of the things that happen to him when he doesn’t write about them, etc. I’m a big craft person, I love asking writers and directors about their approach and how form and sensibility are in an endless dialogue with one another. And I love asking about how external factors (politics, society, what have you) also are included in that equation. But I know, at least concerning this last part, I’d probably grit my teeth.
David Sedaris begins Happy-Go-Lucky with an epigraph from Sigmund C. Monster (from the TV show, I guess?) proclaiming the need to “purify everything” and “moral cleanse everything”. It’s placed here like a crank would place a sign reading “go away” on his apartment door. The book isn’t as… glaring as such an opener might guard their loins for, but it is at least an indication of how the famed essayist’s mood has been.
An attempt: in the most straightforward, least cringeworthy way, David Sedaris is one of the people who made me want to be a writer. Perhaps for the longest time, he was the person. iTunes had an audiobook sale when I was ten or eleven, and, for whatever reason, I downloaded Me Talk Pretty One Day. His cadence, his observations, his mix of self-effacement and brashness, his interplay of situational laughs and written jokes, and the way (earned, to me) sentimentality would leak through his writing, they were all seductive qualities. I wanted to write like that, and I wanted to get reactions like he did from people.
His oscillating cynical point of view was branded upon me when I started listening, and it’s ruined my life ever since. I kid, but the tempestuous nature with which I toggle between deep earnestness and cower from it is largely due to both my severe attachment trauma and having become a David Sedaris fan at an impressionable age. He did shape my view of the world and how I (want[ed] to) approach it. Really, he’s an alpha version of the beta kind of person I am.
But as each book passes — and I’ve been a fan of his long enough to have excitedly brought my first personal copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames signed while also being gifted a condom that I have kept in a scrapbook — my love for his work and my admiration for him wavers. If Sedaris’ work rests not only on memory but on a kind of social observation that knowingly plays fast and loose with context, the writer’s grasp of it is becoming increasingly narrower. At one point, Sedaris’ crisply crass and squinty-eyed view of the world was a way to bring absurdities into focus and find a semblance of broad truth beneath weirdness. There was a funhouse mirror quality to his judgments, in that he’d also redirect it to himself in what were relatively productive and, at least, funny ways. Now, he appears to be doing his sliver-sized gazing from the balcony of a large apartment or using a critical distance he’d previously intentionally undermine to reify a point of view that’s tapered and distant. The ratio of good essays to mediocre is widening. The pettiness, once inviting like a little gay id, is starting to feel hermetic. The flames are starting to lick at his feet.
At best, a third of the essays collected in Happy-Go-Lucky (his second collection of new work in four years) indicates a writer who is still growing, still thoughtful, still being challenged and challenging (in the way that he could be), and they are the ones that are, perhaps unsurprisingly, about his family. That favorite ensemble, who appears in each collection like, well, Mike Leigh’s troupe of actors, but here playing variations of the same character. More directly, the best work is about the aging and death of his father, Lou Sedaris. David peels back (often not far enough) the line between the character Lou and the person he’s had to live with, whose approval he desperately sought, who may have been abusive. He muses in one essay about how he turned the power his father wielded against him into “profit” through his essays. Sedaris begins to grapple with the way pain and catharsis can bleed into one another. David gestures towards an interest in unpacking these different versions of his father that have appeared in essays like “Cyclops” (Barrel Fever and Other Stories), “You Can’t Kill the Rooster” (Me Talk Pretty One Day), and “Laugh, Kookaburra” (Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls). Is there a multiplicity of Lou Sedarises that David now must sift through in order to find the real one? Firecracker, patriarch, Republican, abuser, vegetable, character, memory, fiction, reality?
There are glimmers of the shrewdness of the Sedaris who wrote “Ashes” in Naked, after his mother’s death. Of the blinkered shock of the Sedaris who wrote “Hejira” in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, after his parents kicked him out for being gay. Or of the Sedaris confronting his own ugliness as recently as “The Spirit World”, about his regrets regarding his relationship with his sister Tiffany who died by suicide, in Calypso. But almost no essay in Happy-Go-Lucky is that stark in its honesty, elegant in its prose, or striking in its ability to pull back and really unveil the David Sedaris he was and has become. “Unbuttoned”, “Lady Marmalade”, and “Pussytoes” inch close, but not quite. Not even a hint at the idea that writing about his father might be his way of keeping him alive, however fraught their relationship. And, too, that in “Lady Marmalade” Sedaris kind of considers (but then doesn’t) the veracity of his sister’s accusations of sexual abuse against their father. But it’s not ambivalent in the thorough, dynamic, real way. It dances, as he is wont to do, around uncomfortableness.
Instead, as has been the case for an obnoxious percentage of his work after Dress Your Family Corduroy and Denim (basically, the post Me Talk Pretty One Day levels of ultra-fame), much of the book orbits around Sedaris spending money or his stumbling around a modern world, full of contradictions. This latter thing may have had its charm a decade or so ago, when he didn’t have all that money to spend; at a certain level of notoriety and, let’s face it, power, it’s not unfair to hope that someone who could be described as nominally progressive (or at least liberal) would be a little more generous in considering their tone about certain things. Or, at least, have more self-awareness when writing about them. The effect money has had on Sedaris appears to have hit his curiosity: he’s still curious about people, in the trollish way that distinguishes his humor, but more and more only on his terms. He once wrote about class from the point of view of someone whose mobility was erratic, which was literarily productive: hitchhiking, working on apple orchards, living in a shitty apartment and having a young girl from a bad home as a friend, barely being paid to teach writing. He had the experience of someone who has been both middle class and incredibly poor, which lent him an air of perspective. Lately, he writes of going to Comme de Garçons a lot, going to Eastern Bloc countries to buy stuff, as much about the hotels he stays at and the first class flights he takes on his book tours as the idiosyncratic people he meets on them.
He once used the phrase, self-deprecatingly, “cultural chauvinism” to describe an interaction regarding the Netherlands’ Christmas traditions and, as it would turn out, nationalist spirit. It was in “Six to Eight Black Men”, spritely in his absurdist scrutiny of another white culture that flagrantly bandied about power however it liked. It looks as though, gotten the best of him here, as he talks about how he didn’t really have it that hard during COVID lockdown and how cursorily he thought about Black people during the George Floyd protests. He has admitted throughout his career that his attention to and interest in politics is inconsistent, so while I don’t expect a finely detailed essay about the state of the world, it’s disconcerting how poorly his once amusing aloofness translates to a world where, at least writing-wise, a good essay would be about that narrowness, unveil those biases with clarity and honesty. However, this latter essay, “Fight-Caught Haddock”, is not without its sharp remarks, such as what people actually thought about during protests and how not infrequently they turned out to be vanity projects for the guilt-ridden white. But it’s diluted by lousy, unrigorous joke making that bumps up his more compelling notes; it’s space that could have been taken up, if not by hand wringing sincerity from someone who admits compliance, then at least more meticulous unpacking of the memories he’s always woven and deconstructed.
He’s always winked at what he’s done in his endings, which are either brilliant or terribly maudlin, depending on your perspective. My generosity towards his final lines has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve read nearly every piece of his writing no fewer than four times, and listened to its audiobook companion hundreds of times more. He’s my bedtime storyteller. And when you’re ready the escape one world and drift into another, the indelicate niceness, how architected his last phrases are, feel comforting. They’re like q-tips in their inevitability, blunt and soft at once. Take the ending of “Go, Carolina” from Me Talk Pretty One Day, his essay about going to a speech therapist and his ruminations on how his lisp and fey voice left a mark on how he saw himself and how others saw him: “‘You’ve got to admit, you really are a sucker,’ [my mother] said. I agreed, but, because none of my speech classes ever made a difference, I still prefer to use the word chump.” It is not a perfect punchline to the essay, but rather a cozy one. And, at my worst, I would use it as an example of how Sedaris was as intellectually concerned with the construction of these kinds of memoirish essays as he was in the stories themselves, making his kickers comments on the nature of sentimentality in the genre. But I’m probably giving him too much credit.
And given that he is so, I think, well equipped to poke and prod at endings, one could argue that Calypso should have been the one he made for himself. Regardless of the fact that other members of his family are still alive, and that, at the time of that book’s publication, so was his father, Calypso is Sedaris’ most mature work. In most of its contents, the question of memory, of the unreachability of the past, of how money changes his life in ways that do not always reflect positively on him, are more seriously examined. Death and remorse, especially: there’s such a wide gap between where David is and where Tiffany was financially, mentally, emotionally. I was hoping it would be his swan song, essays like “Now We Are Five”, “Why Aren’t You Laughing?”, and “The Spirit World” as piercing and perceptive as he was ever likely to be. They felt like rewrites, his penchant for morbid humor reworked into melancholic inquiry, the clock ticking between each punctuation. In the moment of Calypso, getting older is nearly inextricable from asking more of yourself as a writer. I’ve gotten older too, and I ask more of the artists i love. The paradoxes of his curmudgeonly avoidance, his yearning for attention, and its consequences felt like they reached an apex. That he knew he was coming to an end and wanted to quit while he was ahead, marked by life, the smirk faltering.
But he’s somewhat contradictorily kept going and stopped. He has kept writing but has almost stopped asking more of himself as a writer. I haven’t. It’s only in the book’s final essay, “Lucky-Go-Happy”, that a modicum of self-awareness pops in, at least as possibly crystalline as it once was: writing about life in pandemic, he says, “A part of me worried, though, that when the world eventually moved on, it would do so without me, or at least without any particular need of me. The circus would take to the road again, but not with this elephant.” An elephant is on the cover of the second volume of his collected diary entries, A Carnival of Snackery. It’s a fun image: the elephant wandering around New York or Paris or West Sussex or wherever he’s picked up a new house, using its trunk to wave hello, maybe disclose a deliciously funny secret about the life they’ve lived. But Sedaris appears too scared to force himself to imagine a world where we’ve moved on from him, where his sensibility has turned stale or his examinations bluntly superficial at best and completely out of touch at worst. The novelty of a young-ish gay writer who is born a crank but is impossibly curious has faded, not only because of the dime a dozen copycats Sedaris inspired (my high school self included), but because he himself has settled into a lesser, stiffer, lethargic writer. He’s the curmudgeon without the wily brightness, reveling primarily in an acidity that has lost its bite. The sourpuss that doesn’t have that paradoxical pride for weird things. The elephant braying at the carnival he couldn’t keep up with. I hope the elephant lays down and takes peace in knowing that it was a good act, but that it’s okay for the carnival to go on without him. We’ll remember the best of him.