David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, thanks in large part to the simultaneously self-deprecating but smug humor in his collections of personal essays like When You are Engulfed in Flames, and Holidays on Ice. This new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a decidedly different turn, though.
The book is essentially a collection of fables with animals standing in for people in a way that allows Sedaris to write short, pithy illustrations of human foibles, shortcomings, and absurdities. Sedaris said once in an interview that using animals in his stories allowed him to cut right to the heart of what he had to say without bothering to establish characters’ back stories or personalities. They’re animals; we know the relevant traits off the bat (pardon the pun) and Sedaris can fill in the rest to get us where he wants us to go. This works really well, and not coincidentally for the same reason that many of Aesop’s Fables work well.
The Migrating Warblers, for example, shows us how we can inadvertently dabble in racism and cultural superiority for the sake of entertaining a crowd, while The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck shows how looking down on that kind of thing belies a double standard for what constitutes admirable versus admonishable behavior. Sedaris also gets a bit topical, like with The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat, in which he skewers the claptrap of The Secret and new age self-determinism by examining what happens when a lab rat gets injected with carcinogens despite its pathologically upbeat outlook on life. This is all pretty funny and incisive stuff, and Sedaris isn’t above spinning tales like The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig for the sole sake of closing it with a punchline in the form of a groan-worthy pun.
But I couldn’t help noticing how many of the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk have a much darker edge to them as well. Cautionary stories like The Motherless Bear and The Mouse and the Snake go into some very grim places for the sake of illustrating the perils of self-pity and unconditional love. And the eponymous squirrel and chipmunk turns out to be a bittersweet story about how time magnifies lost opportunities born of closed mindedness. These stories are not possessed of the trademark Sedaris funny, so be ready for that.
In fact, on balance the book is not nearly as laugh out loud funny as the author’s other works, but it is decisively clever writing and conveys some great insights about human behavior, even though it’s all about chipmunks and squirrels.