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Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

the qualities that make his work so vivid and enjoyable. Despite the somber tone of some of his essays, even the ones that feature his sister’s suicide have humorous passages. For example, in “A House Divided,” just after learning about the bag Tiffany used to asphyxiate herself, Sedaris wonders if a person contemplating suicide has to work to find the right bag: “SAFEWAY. TRUE VALUE. Does a person go through a number of them before making a selection, or, as I suspect, will any bag do, regardless of the ironic statement it might make” (62). One suspects that the inappropriate comic reaction is a reflex, but the reflex’s purpose is either to avoid pain or to avoid sentimentality or pretension. Sedaris’s willingness to record those thoughts that reveal him to be cold or petty or worse has always been one of the most charming parts of his writing. His readers might be more disappointed if his thoughts were more appropriate. In the story “The Spirit World,” just after Sedaris describes his last encounter with Tiffany and after he lists the other times he


did not help her, Sedaris seeks his family’s absolution, and they (communally) give it to him: “Don’t be too hard on yourself.” Sedaris clearly appreciates their forgiveness, but he adds a qualifier: “Perhaps, like the psychic, they were all just telling me what I needed to hear, something to ease my conscience and make me feel that underneath it all I’m no different from anyone else. They’ve always done that for me, my family. It’s what keeps me coming back” (237). In “Silent Treatment,” Sedaris is stung when his father refers to the family in the past tense. “I couldn’t deny the truth of it,” he writes. “Our mother was the one who kept us all together” (133). The beach house, the Sea Section, gives his family a place to come together. The essays set there have an underlying urgency, as Sedaris works to keep his family in the present tense. He needs his family because they are the only ones in the position to forgive him. Cynics might add that he needs the house because he needs his family for material for his stories, and if that is the Sea Section’s purpose, his loyal readers hope the house stands a long time. n PHOTOGRAPH BY SANDY CARAWAN

again.” He then lists other times he did not support Tiffany, concluding, “She was, I told myself, someone else’s problem” (236). Although he gives an account of Tiffany’s eccentricities, her poverty, her signs of mental illness, he does not write about the part of their history that is most relevant to David’s career. Tiffany told the Boston Globe in 2004 that she was the only sister to not let him write about her: “I don’t trust David to have boundaries.”* Sedaris has long used his family as material, writing of his siblings with candor and humor and exaggeration. In Calypso, Sedaris writes about his father, sisters, and brother with tenderness and poignancy perhaps brought out by Tiffany’s death. In “Company Man,” his sisters Gretchen, Amy, and Lisa visit him and Hugh in England. After they leave, he hugs the sheets they had slept in. The story that begins with the news of his sister’s death ends with a realtor taking in Sedaris and his siblings: “That makes five – wow. Now, that’s a big family” (31). David seems to find reassurance in the word “big.” The family will persevere. In another story, while walking with Lisa, he is overcome with the feeling that he is “so grateful to have her alive and beside me” (62). If in the past Sedaris could be accused of mocking his family – “These are cartoons of us,” Tiffany said in that 2004 interview – in this collection he treasures them. Sedaris’s kindred spirits – his loyal readers – have no problem with his mockery. His irreverence, his satirical sensibility, even his gleeful misanthropy are some of


ABOVE AND OPPOSITE LEFT The Sea Section, Emerald Isle, NC (See more of former

NCLR intern Sandy Carawan’s coastal photography on her website.)

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.