I received, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary” by David Sedaris in the mail yesterday and finished it this morning. I could not stop reading and loved it to the core. I remember reading, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” a long time ago and also the fact that I could not stop laughing. I was almost in tears at the end of it and “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” was no exception.
What we have here is a unique and absurd collection of what appear (on the surface) to be anthropomorphic animal characters- squirrels, storks, cats, toads, turtles, and of course a duck. Each story starts out benign and normal enough, more or less like an Aesop’s Fable, but then gets more preposterous as far as animals go and then more and more relevant to life as we live it today. In other words, each story holds up a mirror to our everyday life- but this being David Sedaris it’s more a Wonderland or Funhouse mirror. Perhaps the closest I could come would be Aesop’s fables written by a very modern Lewis Carroll.
Sedaris says to not expect a Moral for each Fable, but if you read them carefully, you should find some insight. “His morals are not spoon-fed cautionary tales of cause-and-effect but rather seemingly matter-of-fact observations that pack a subtle aftershock of insightfully insinuated scrutiny.”
The mirror has shattered, and each little tale here is a sharp shard. There is a danger that if you handle the jagged pieces you will cut yourself. The sardonic self-interest of the cat, the anxious spirituality of the brown chicken, and the bemused acquiescence of the chipmunk—David has exposed these all-too-human characteristics but he has not given us himself as a human lightning rod to accept and defuse the psychological voltage. The animals in these parables, true to type and operating as they do out of unapologetic instinct, certainly can’t absorb any of the shock, and we are left alone, face-to-face with our own pettiness, cruelty, wisdom, ignorance, tenderness, heartbreak. The tales are sometimes laughable and sometimes excruciatingly uncomfortable, and almost always brilliant. As fables, they are simply written—but they are definitely not for children despite the cartoonish illustrations. They are not for adults who wish to remain ignorant of their human failings either. Like all good fairy tales, they are instructional, but only if you pay attention and apply the parallels.
The cruelty and darkness that some reviewers mention is a standard function of cautionary story-telling, and it’s there to grab your attention; it provides the necessary tension so that the reader is drawn in, either through outrage, fear or discomfort. There is a grotesque element operating here that gentler readers will have difficulty reckoning with. I am one of those, and my first instinct was to say: forget it! But I went back over the parts that had first offended me, and with a second reading found that David’s sense of humor was intact; it was mine that had been lacking. His insights remained unflinching and devastating.
Although SQUIRREL SEEKS CHIPMUNK might not be the usual fare readers have come to expect from David Sedaris, it has all the earmarks of what makes his nonfiction truly remarkable: biting wit, caustic satire, and an ever-so-subtle detection of a wink aimed toward his readers. Ian Falconer’s illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment to these acerbic tales. Unexpected, yes, but this slim volume provides a refreshing change of genre from one of our most treasured and talented writers.
As you read, the pieces of the broken mirror reassemble, and by the end of the book you will be able, once again, to see a reflection. It’s you alright, with the tail of a rat, the talons of the owl, the pecked neck of the fowl. Cringe. Laugh (sheepishly). Change your attitude. Think twice. Hold your tongue. Examine your motivations. It’s uncomfortable but it’s necessary. How else can we become more aware if not through the shock of self-recognition? And how else can we grow unless we see how small we really are?
Here’s a youtube sneak on the tale “Squirrel and the Chipmunk”
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk; Sedaris, David; Little Brown and Company; Hachette Book Group; $21.99