Seasonal work as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand, frustrated attempts as a performance artist, the childhood of a gay baby boomer in the Raleigh, North Carolina, suburbs, and the rudeness of travelers are all well-known fare in the writings of essayist and darling of public radio, David Sedaris. But his latest work marks a significant departure from his first-person accounts of menial jobs, precocious siblings and abrasive-yet-sage parents, the difficulties of learning a new language, and the often grizzled cast of teachers, neighbors, and bosses with whom he has interacted. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (Little, Brown and Co. 2010) takes the form of sixteen brief, illustrated stories, each in the third person, and each one featuring, exclusively, the characters of animals. Falling into none of the genres that a book of animal tales might typically suggest, the book in many ways defies categorization. It is notably dark in the cruelty it portrays of its very human-like animal protagonists, but the darkness is belied by the sometimes-whimsical illustrations of children’s author and illustrator Ian Falconer. Further, although delightfully spoken in Sedaris’s recognizable voice, the jokes sometimes fall flat in the absence of the self-deprecating humor for which the author is known. Yet despite all in the volume that troubles, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk demonstrates an awareness, however secular, that has evolved in some of the author’s earlier work of what it means to be blessed in the midst of cruelty and misery.
To this day, Sedaris’s best-known work is his essay “SantaLand Diaries,” documenting his work as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand when, at age thirty-three, he was particularly in need of work. His reading from the diaries in 1992 on NPR’s Morning Edition is the second-most requested recording from that show, second only—at least, according to the re-broadcast four years later on Ira Glass’s This American Life—to coverage of the death of sportscaster Red Barber, also in 1992. With student loans due, no other job offers in that recession year, and even after failing the drug test—“My urine had roaches and stems floating in it,” Sedaris writes—the 5 foot 5-inch tall Sedaris was hired. “SantaLand Diaries” have become a perennial favorite for anyone who can relate to degrading work, seeks out large doses of irony, or has experienced the winter holidays as less than perfect.
Like Sedaris’s account of his underemployment as an elf, the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk certainly draw laughs, but these stories stand out mostly as dark: darker than the most sobering moments in “SantaLand Diaries” or in any of his essay collections since. They are so dark, in fact, that reviewers have gone out of their way to note that the stories are not for children. This observation is not because of the book’s vocabulary, which, as in all of Sedaris’s essays, features words that he cannot read on radio or television. Neither is it entirely because of any sexual content, for example in the story “The Parenting Storks,” which tells of two mother storks who debate the true origin of babies. They come from mice, asserts the unenlightened mother, who learned as much, she says, from “some guy I’ve been having sex with” (54). Hoping to set her unenlightened sister straight, the protagonist stork convinces her sister to tell her own son a harmless lie about children really being the product of sex: just enough to “tide him over until he’s old enough to grasp that whole magic-mouse concept” (54). Content that honesty is the best policy, she then rails at her own daughter for her selfishness in being hungry, claiming that the attitude stems from her father’s self-centeredness as a lover, since she was, after all, conceived without mutual orgasm.
The horror at a parent’s inability to recognize a child’s innocence is not new to Sedaris’s work: it appears, for example, in the report in “SantaLand Diaries” of a child who is coached by a parent in the following dialogue:
“All right, Jason. Tell Santa what you want. Tell him what you want.”
Jason said, “I…. want… Prokton and… Gamble to… stop animal testing.”
The mother said, “Procter, Jason, that’s Procter and Gamble. And what do they do to animals? Do they torture animals, Jason? Is that what they do?”
Jason said, Yes, they torture. He was probably six years old. (30)
More than because of any sexual references, the stork and other stories’ darkness—their expressions of hate and selfishness and cruel poetic justice in a world very like our own—make them most unsuitable for children.
Another story notable for its darkness is “The Migrating Warblers,” in which a migratory bird entertains her feathered friends with tales of her and her husband’s annual trip to Guatemala. Complaining that she had had to learn Spanish—“Every year, like clockwork, here we come by the tens of thousands—but do you think any of these Spanish-speaking birds have bothered to learn English?”—she explicates her mistake in meaning to ask for horseflies, but instead asking for head flies (10). Continuing to her mystified listeners, who think she has already reached the punch line, she tells of being led to a field of, “like, three hundred heads rotting in the afternoon sun. Each one with about fifty flies on it. And I mean huge, the size of bumblebees” (11). Reassuring her horrified listeners that “they weren’t bird heads,” but rather, the heads of humans, the macabre detail leads to her dénoument: her mistakenly making a sexual innuendo as she complains about the smell of the makeshift graveyard.
Sedaris has claimed in an interview with the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart that he has not called these stories fables because they do not have morals, but surely stories like this one do. The warblers epitomize, of course, Ugly Americans who expect people worldwide to speak English. The story even features a poignant line about culture shock, which Sedaris—who has moved to Paris, among other places, with his partner Hugh Hamrick—might have experienced: “rather than uniting you and your mate, the strangeness of another culture only made you feel more separate, more despicable and alone” (12). Yet surely the story’s lesson is not in this or in the punch line for which the polite bird listeners are searching, but rather in the all-too-real specter of the mass graves that have only recently been exhumed in Guatemala. How disturbing and, possibly, familiar the portrait of Americans so focused on our own comfort that we are not even curious about the inhabitants—or tragedies—of the countries in which we are guests.
It is no criticism, of course, that this book is not for children; nowhere does Sedaris suggest that it is or that any of his writings are so pitched. So why clarify that these stories are not for the young? It is not simply that the tales resemble those of Aesop, which have been standard fare for children since the Middle Ages, in which they were used to teach schoolboys Latin. Neither is it that they feature illustrations or animal protagonists. Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel Maus (1986) has famously demonstrated how animal protagonists can tell an adult story—in this case, his father’s survival of the Nazi Holocaust—with nuance and pathos. One reason, however, to dispel the idea that Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk might be for children is the illustrations’ recognizable similarity to Ian Falconer’s wildly popular Olivia books.
Yet it does not take long to notice that the subject of many of the illustrations, much less the content of the stories, is not for children. Illustrations include, for example, a bear who, in trying to secure unwarranted sympathy for her mother’s death, ends up as a circus bear complete with muzzle, broken teeth, and mange. Another shows a sanctimonious lab rat who faults those, such as her companion dying of pancreatic cancer, for causing their illness through a lack of positive thinking. Unbeknownst to her, the gloved hand is about to inject her with the AIDS virus. A third shows a sheep who, tricked by a crow, has allowed her ewe’s eyes to be pecked out. No wonder Entertainment Weekly, although viewing the book positively, claims it is not for children “unless, perhaps, your child is a tiny, sadistic Quentin Tarantino in training.”
Of course, darkness pervades in other of Sedaris’s writings, but this darkness is often lightened with a self-critical humor that is key to what makes many of Sedaris’s essays work best—and the absence of which makes some of the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk fall short. For example, “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” from Holidays on Ice (1997), recounts Sedaris’s teenaged sister Lisa’s attempt to rescue, from a domestic dispute, a former prostitute with whom she works at her after-school job. The punch line for him and his siblings is the thrill of peppering Dinah with questions, sure that in the banality of the suburbs, theirs is the only house harboring such an exciting secret. “Which do you like better,” Sedaris reports his now-famous comedian sister Amy as asking, “…spending the night with strange guys or working in a cafeteria? What were the prison guards really like? Do you ever carry a weapon? How much do you charge if somebody just wants a spanking?” (87). “One at a time, one at a time,” he reports his mother as interjecting, “Give her a second to answer” (87). Part of the fun, though, is the joke on Sedaris’s hot-headed father, Lou; their mother hides Dinah’s presence in their house from him by saying that they are discussing his Christmas present. This masterful give-and-take, couched in well-placed dialogue, appears even in Sedaris’s least satisfying writings. At his best, the joke, is also, at least in part, on himself.
Consider, for example, “Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist” from Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), which recounts Sedaris’s dual discovery in his college years of methamphetamines and performance art. Having a “piece” of literal garbage that he has catalogued and layered into wooden crates accepted at a local juried exhibit—his friends’ proposals, he reports, to “set fire to the grand staircase or sculpt the governor’s head out of human feces” had all been rejected—Sedaris is emboldened to participate with the same friends in performance pieces involving, for no particular reason, the slicing of pineapples, ripping apart of sock monkeys, and cutting of his own hair (48). Although torturous to his mother—“Are you trying to punish me for something?” she later asks—the piece becomes a success to the audience when his own father begins heckling him and the audience thinks it is part of the plan (50).
This is only one example from many, many more, in which Sedaris recounts his foibles. He struggles, in wonderfully translated broken French, to explain Easter to a Moroccan student. He cannot stand, yet cannot avoid seeking out, his annoying New York neighbor, bonding with her over soap operas and stories of others’ rudeness, only to be disappointed by her rude dismissals of him. He learns to loathe himself when teachers imitate those they call “queers and fairies” and is goaded by a speech therapist into losing his lisp. Hired, finally, to teach writing without being trained to do so, he is challenged by his students, for whom he had been using One Life to Live episodes all semester as a course text. Replying that he is the only one in the room paid to be there, he unites them in laughter after revealing the tiny amount he is paid. These trips and falls are rich, and they are simply less possible in animal tales reported in the third person, which feel more like the rudeness of airport travelers or Macy’s shoppers minus the punch line that elf or fellow traveler Sedaris can be just as awful.
Certainly, as Sedaris has stated, his tales do not contain fables’ moral structure. Fables link folly succinctly to consequence. Listen to flatterers, the story of the fox and the crow communicates, and flatterers will take your cheese. Work hard when food is plentiful, the story of the ants and the grasshopper tells us, and you will have goods stored up for the winter. Asking nicely works best, the fable illustrates with the story of the wind and the sun wagering on who can best make a man remove his coat. So in Sedaris’s collection, in which the good are brutalized, contract horrible diseases, or end up as holiday dinner, why, as Charles Mahoney asks in the New York University student newspaper, be good at all? Sedaris’s evil characters, Mahoney’s review rightly observes, are almost universally miserable, whereas the sick, the faithful, and the hunted—the turkey who takes pains not to alarm the other farm animals with his imminent butchering; the owl who finds true friendship in helping a hippo learn about the parasites in her digestive tract—“seem to get the most pleasure out of life.” Blessed, indeed, in the world of this wickedly funny set of tales, are the weak and the sorrowful, just as, in the world of Sedaris’s essays, blessed are the underemployed, the language learners, the bullied, and sometimes, those who take themselves a little too seriously.
In a rare, non-ironic moment, Sedaris told Binghamton University’s class of 2009 about finding just this sort of blessedness in the ability to write in the midst of sorrow and disappointment. The writing he had begun in his college writing courses, he states, “was enough to sustain me: when the loan companies started calling, when my mother died, when I dressed in the velvet costume and reported for work in the department store SantaLand.” Sedaris’s writing blesses those who read it as well, whether expressed in the first-person memoir through which he has forged his reputation, or in the tales of the squirrel, the owl, and the turkey on whom, however painful their stories, we and their creator smile.
Elizabeth Burow-Flak is Associate Professor of English at Valparaiso University.
Glass, Ira. “Christmas and Commerce.” This American Life. Public Radio International. 20 November 1996. (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/47/christmas-and-commerce)
Greenblatt, Leah. Review of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Entertainment Weekly, 22 September 2010. (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20428012,00.html)
Mahoney, Charles. “Storytime with David Sedaris: Leave Your Kids at Home.” Washington Square News, 30 September 2010. (http://nyunews.com/arts/2010/09/29/30sedaris/)
Sedaris, David. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2010.
_____. Interview by Jon Stewart. The Daily Show, Comedy Central, 4 November 2010. (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-november-4-2010/david-sedaris)
_____. Commencement Address at Binghamton University, 14 December 2008. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruIxd-QYlmU)
_____. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Back Bay Books, 2001.
_____. “SantaLand Diaries.” In Holidays on Ice: Stories. New York: Back Bay Books, 1998.