Sunday, June 10, 2012

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, David Sedaris

The sixteen short animal stories of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk don’t quite measure up to Sedaris’s previous work, but they’re still a quick and enjoyable read.

Sedaris plays with traditional expectations of animal fables by skewering ignorant and self-righteous (cough…conservative) characters, including overprivileged birds who ridicule the “backward” inhabitants of a Guatemalan holiday destination, a stork who denies sex education to her inquisitive chick, and a militant rabbit preoccupied with violent defense of his forest (even filing down a unicorn's horn...poor unicorn). It is rather satisfying to let Sedaris have at these characters from a socially-minded perspective that challenges ethnocentric/political norms. From there, Sedaris delves further into the tension within individuals of limited experience who, through tragedy and acceptance of their own personal weaknesses, achieve the sometimes jarring, but transcendent effect of empathy. The title story features a chipmunk overcoming her fear of the unfamiliar (in this case, a taboo inter-species relationship with a squirrel). After she succumbs to pressures to break up with the squirrel, she realizes that he actually signifies “every beautiful thing she had ever failed to appreciate” (21). For Sedaris, it is not through upholding (personal/philisophical/national) boundaries that one achieves insight, but rather through relationships. He calls for the building of a type of self-directed wisdom bred from the desire to connect and to understand others. The final two stories extend this theme: a cat and mouse who find redemption through a shared addiction and a widower owl who rejects his role as predator to seek out knowledge from his prey, stating “[w]hat changed things, albeit slowly, was learning” (157). 

Deep right?

Now, I love me some Sedaris stories. After standing in line for hours at a signing for his last collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Mr. Sedaris not only signed and drew a funny little crab on my book, he also gave me a mini shampoo from his Beverly Hilton hotel room. Despite the goodwill I may have towards this quirky gift-giving writer and despite my fandom for his brilliant NPR readings (here is one from this collection), I can admit that, though I really liked Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, I feel that it is overly restrained and a bit too…neat. The distinct authorial perspective, the observations of eccentric family members, the poetically-odd circumstances from previous collections are practically absent. Sedaris’s turn to animals places the anthropomorphized creatures in the mundane world of domestic responsibilities, marriage, body image, childrearing, and religion. The effect, though clever, layers an additional device upon his writing and distances the reader from Sedaris’s singular voice, overwhelming the more compelling aspects of his style. On the bright side, even a diluted Sedaris is still very readable.

Final verdict: Kind of like a mini-snack to tide you over until Sedaris’s next collection. Also, great illustrations by Ian Falconer. Better to pick up Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day, if you are new to his work. 

1 comment:

Melissa Berry said...

I love me some Sedaris as well. Did I mention that I have the audiobook for Me Talk Pretty One Day? I think I get what you mean about the animal stories getting away from that snarky eclectic style that he has--his ability to write about the absurdity of the commonplace and share in a hilariously deadpan tone some of the absurd experiences he's had is absolutely my favorite thing about his stories.