Slightly shorter version of this piece here. I like a lot of things about Sedaris’s writing–sadly, few of them are in evidence here.
Context is everything. The animal fables that make up David Sedaris’ collection Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk are each accompanied by illustrations that seem rather incongruous in their innocence (though one of them does have a lamb with its eyes gouged out), considering the general tone of much of Sedaris’s work. Then you realise that these illustrations are by Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia books about the adventures of a tiny piglet, and the whole thing becomes deliciously twisted.
Beast fables are, of course, really about humans; this has been the case since Aesop. The characters in these stories may be restricted to animal bodies (this is the point of many of the more famous fables, such as the fox and the stork, or the hare and the tortoise), but the traits they exhibit are familiar to us all. Whether or not they come with a moral attached to the end, what is important to these stories is a sense of recognition. This is particularly clear in Vikram Seth’s wonderful Beastly Tales, in which the familiar stories are retold from a more cynical point of view. Here, the underdog doesn’t triumph merely by winning a race (the hare gains more celebrity from losing than the tortoise from winning), the talentless may prosper over the bodies of the talented (“The Frog and the Nightingale”); these poems are funny because we know the genre they’re riffing off, but also because we see ourselves in them.
And so to Sedaris, who skewers such human traits as self-absorption, self-interest and prejudice in these stories. The title piece has a chipmunk sentence herself to a life of dissatisfaction and mediocrity when she allows her lack of trust for a jazz-loving squirrel to overwhelm their relationship. The baboon of “The Cat and the Baboon” is happy to badmouth her canine friends while grooming a dog-hating cat, because business is business. “The Vigilant Rabbit” is obsessed with maintaining forest security, by means of killing anyone who suggests his system might be flawed. And so forth. In one of the best stories in the collection two storks discuss exactly how much to tell their children about where babies come from—one, the more self-absorbed, stands by scientific fact, yet her child’s life in undone by fiction. Sedaris’ view of humanity is not particularly charitable, and awful things happen here. Beloved pets may eat you, eyes may be gouged out, teeth may be broken, baby animals may die. In combination with the illustrations it ought to be darkly funny. But most of the time it is curiously underwhelming.
Perhaps part of the reason is that the fable requires such a broad brush, dealing in archetypes rather than individuals. It’s hard to do more than roll your eyes when confronted with yet another disenchanted housewife, another pair of “Ugly American” tourists complaining that the locals refuse to learn their language but at least it’s “cheap cheap cheap” (they’re birds), another fundamentalist making an increasingly desperate grab at meaning through religion. Sedaris’ earlier work has often focused (usually with plenty of self-deprecation) on his own experiences, and even when he has dealt in the universal, it has been with a strong sense of the personal and the human.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk contains no flawed individuals (it isn’t meant to), just a parade of flaws and not particularly original ones. As a result the whole is less powerful than it could be—it isn’t really bleak when there’s so little there to feel bleak about, and it relies too often on the overdone stereotype. The occasional brilliant moment (and the clever choice of Falconer as illustrator) aside, the whole thing just feels rather lazy. The least he could have done was to put the whole thing in rhyming couplets.