Sedaris’s Modest Bestiary has a Bite

Don’t be fooled by the adorable cover Ian Falconer provided for David Sedaris’s latest book; the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary are far from sweet.  Sedaris has turned his talents from memoir to fiction, producing a collection of satirical animal tales, frequently without straightforward morals or redeeming characters.  It is for this very reason that he resisted the label “fables” for his newest work, choosing instead to simply portray humans as animals and draw attention to their subsequent inhumanity. Written with his characteristic wit and dark humor, Sedaris does an excellent job at showing how unnatural or ignorant people’s behavior can be and enhances his stories with Ian Falconer’s (you may know his work from the Olivia the Pig picture books) charming, yet grotesque illustrations.

I have been a Sedaris fan for years and was happy to see him expand his repertoire with Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. It is not my favorite of his, but I did enjoy a number of the stories contained therein.  I have a certain fondness for cautionary tales and while Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk may not explicitly caution readers against certain behaviors, it sharpens the focus and lends a clarity of vision, effectively rendering us voyeurs of our own species’ actions and beliefs. So whether it’s migrating birds acting like entitled tourists, a mouse loving its pet snake just a little too much, or the challenges of interspecies dating, Sedaris strips us bare once more.

On a more nerdy and personal level, I found it interesting to see the evolution of certain stories in the collection.  In the recording Live for Your Listening Pleasure, Sedaris reads a few of his diary entries to the audience, one of which references his boyfriend calling some pigeons “assholes” after they ate all the food in the squirrel feeder.  “It was such a strange thing to call a pair of birds,” Sedaris says, “because the word, to me, is something reserved for humans.”  Now pick up your copy of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and skip ahead to the story of “The Faithful Setter,” which begins with a dog describing a chicken as, “‘an absolute raging asshole,'” and the narrator finding this word choice strange, as he “always thought that word was reserved for males.”  I find a strange level of satisfaction in watching a writer or artist create–spotting their inspiration and influences.  As a result, I rarely feel I’ve wasted my time hearing what they have to say, even if a given work doesn’t blow me away.  Such, for me, was the case for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

“It maybe wasn’t the best story in the world, but, as the mouse had told him on more than one occasion, it wasn’t the worst either.”


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