Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
by David Sedaris
Illustrations by Ian Falconer
In one way, I loved this book. And in another, I have probably never been as shocked and appalled by anything I’ve ever read.
It starts off so nice: it is “A Modest Bestiary,” as the subtitle calls it. All of the stories, and they are all quite short, are about animals. Animals that stand in for people in various ways: they work, they talk, they go to hairdressers, they wait in line to complain about shoddy products. The title story, for instance, is about a couple that try to date, but they really don’t understand each other — and not because they are a squirrel and a chipmunk, though that does cause trouble; the chipmunk’s mother forces her to break it off with him partly because he is a squirrel, and not appropriate for a young chipmunk. No, they break up because he loves jazz, and she doesn’t know what jazz is. And the story tells of how someone goes through various versions of understanding based on different circumstances: when she’s with the squirrel, it is something mysterious and probably wonderful; after they break up, it becomes everything bad, and she is horrified that she ever told the squirrel that she was fond of it (Because after all, she can’t just admit she doesn’t know what jazz is). Over the course of her life, “jazz” changes twice more. And the best part? All of these different ideas are, in some way, reasonable definitions of what jazz is, with the last being the best. It’s a great story, both sweet and insightful. The other beginning stories are also about human foibles: the way service people suck up to their clients and how we let them; the way married couples tell stories, and collect stories to tell; the way people react differently to frustrations — that one, “The Toad, the Turtle, and the Duck” is freaking hilarious.
And each story has at least one lovely illustration by Ian Falconer, the artist who created Olivia. The illustrations are beautifully done, and adorable; they bring the stories to life and are worth looking at even without the stories for context.
But then you get to “The Motherless Bear.” Which is somewhat about human foibles as represented by the animals, but is more about how bloody horrible animal lives are when they interact with humans. And it was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read. And it had adorable illustrations by Ian Falconer, too. Which just made it worse.
And so it goes: “The Parenting Storks” is cute, “The Vigilant Rabbit” is laugh-out-loud hilarious; “The Crow and the Lamb” makes you want to gouge your eyes out so you don’t have to look at it any more. (If you’ve read the book, sorry about that. And if you read the book, you’ll get that.) Sedaris goes after envy, hypocrisy, adultery, egotism, enabling behavior — every human foible, as seen through animals. He skewers us all, which is probably what makes the book so hard to read at times: it’s honest, and it’s accurate. It’s a tough mirror to look into.
Honestly, this is a hell of a good book. But it is not for the faint of heart.