On the Bookshelf: David Sedaris – Squirrel seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary

Squirrel seeks Chipmunk

Before I begin this book review, I should mention that this was my first David Sedaris experience. Now, here is why mentioning that is important – though Sedaris is a highly regarded author, and I would never question his merit, I was disappointed by this compilation of short stories.

First, a short history lesson: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a compilation of bestiaries. Historically, a bestiary is a short anecdotal tale about (you guessed it) various animals, accompanied by morality lessons. Bestiaries were wildly popular during the Medieval era. Some modern examples of bestiaries would include your run-of-the-mill fable. Everyone is familiar with the story of the Tortoise and the Hare or the Grasshopper and the Ant.

Bestiaries have evolved even more in the last few decades. Modern forms of bestiaries do not necessarily include morals. A recent instance of a modern bestiary without a moral is in the video game Final Fantasy VIII. Within the gameplay, there are reference lists of the different beasts and monsters you encounter during your journey and a short description of them.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a collection of satirical allegories united by that common theme. Sedaris puts his notoriously humorous spin on these allegories by personifying animals and placing them in human situations. I believe this serves to exemplify the sheer farcicality of human behavior amidst modern technology and dilemmas. Most of these bestiaries are structured similarly and riddled with different types of irony, mostly situational irony.

His style is formulaic. His choice of diction is clean and simple. There is a beauty in simplicity and a practical purpose within it. Simplicity works well against Sedaris’ ludicrous situations. While executed well, juxtaposed against the last novel on my bookshelf, Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it seems ridiculously simplistic. (Though this is exclusively a matter of preference.)

squirrel-seeks-chipmunk21 squirrel-seeks-chipmunk1

The illustrations scattered throughout the pages of these fables are fitting. They are reminiscent of tongue-in-cheek editorial cartoons found in (archaic) newspapers.

There is a good handful of fables cautionary against religious superstition. And not just against the usual Catholicism or Christianity, but also against the new-age hippie philosophy, which, in its cultish fervor, could be considered a religion. As far as the religious argument goes I stand fairly neutral. So, I can objectively say – it’s been done, over and over and again! Frankly, I’m disappointed in the lack of creativity. Poking holes in the logic of religion is just too easy; it’s already done for you! While an advantageous effort, Sedaris loses points for allowing already established stereotypes and archetypes to do the majority of the work that the writer is meant to do.

There were a few stories that made me feel uncomfortable. These were the stories satirizing animal abuse. For example “The Motherless Bear”.

lat_bear103110_146508a_8colThis allegory tells of an adolescent bear whose mother dies a sudden death. The adolescent bear is mournful, but her grieving is soon replaced by her cravings for attention and sympathy. This urgent desire drives her out of her forest village into a traveling circus act where she meets an adult male bear performer. The bear performer is littered in festering open wounds, has only one leg, cannot speak well or eat solid food since his teeth have been knocked out, and has remained shackled his entire life. However, this adolescent bear doesn’t see this circus bears’ misfortune, only her need for attention. I won’t spoil the ending for you, (but since this is a fable, it’s pretty much telegraphed for you).

I understand the point of juxtaposing a tortured bear against a selfish one serves to highlight the absurdity of her self-serving ways. However, as an animal advocate, I am not comfortable with the idea that animal cruelty takes a secondary priority in the scope of this fable. This fable parallels a real story close to my heart – Raju the Elephant, who cried.

Raju endured fifty years of slavery and abuse at the hands of his owner for profit. This particular animal made headlines because he cried tears of joy once he was released from servitude. True accounts, like Raju’s, make reading stories that use animal cruelty as a device nearly impossible to read objectively. I am aware that this is due to my bias and experiences, however upsetting or alienating certain audiences is something an author who chooses to use controversial subject matter must be conscientious of and prepared for. Therefore, I feel justified in my opinion.

In summation, everything about this novel screams stereotypical satire; from the choices of irony to formulaic structure to illustrations. I find the execution of the concept while notable, trite as it has been done before. George Orwell did much the same in Animal Farm and, in my opinion, did it better. The fables your grandparents told you about the Tortoise and the Hare carry the same weight as Sedaris’ bestiaries; the only difference is Sedaris’ are humorous and published. His execution of technique and style are well done. Sedaris is a conscientious writer. I’m sure he weighs every stylistic choice heavily, which leads me to believe, that perhaps his style just isn’t my cup of tea.

The former begets the quandary of, ‘when great writers write mediocre things.’ Not to dismiss, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk as mediocre, but when creating a book of fables, most of the work is already done. Perhaps the key to this particular quandary rests in my expectations of David Sedaris’ highly regarded talent. I am sure I am not the first person to read a work by an accomplished writer and come away sordidly disappointed. I pose this question at the end of this review because I am hard pressed to write any accomplished author’s work off (no pun intended) as anything less than great since they have established merit. I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts. Is it a matter of preference? Could the work really just not be as good as critics made it out to be (usually for marketing purposes)? Or is it just expectation?

I hope this does not dissuade anyone from enjoying this particular piece of fiction. I will continue to read more David Sedaris novels.