Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary" by David Sedaris

In his new collection of stories, David Sedaris takes a departure from his usual genre of hilarious essays about his life and lives of people around him and tackles a new theme: animals. These range from cute woodland creatures, such as squirrels and chipmunks, to farm animals, to birds, and even venture into the territory of unicorns. The brevity and events of these stories, in which animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics, often resemble fables, but according to Sedaris, the fact that these stories lack a moral lesson at the end, are anything but fables.

In the stories, animals from different species talk to one another, experience human-like emotions and exhibit human-like behavior. They are often violent and ignorant, traits that lead them into quite graphic, gory situations saturated with black humor. Sedaris's bloody tales of mice devoured by snakes and slaughtered cows remain interesting even to the most squeamish reader, by touching upon issues and attitudes prevalent in our society today.

For instance, in "The Vigilant Rabbit," we read about a rabbit appointed by residents of a forest to keep out outsiders, after finding several animals brutally murdered. The beaver builds a gate and the rabbit stands guard, intent on keeping out anyone who is not a resident of the forest - at all costs. As dead bodies of various outsiders pile up on top of the gates, serving as a warning sign, the list of rules keeps growing on the "No Trespassing" sign. This story draws a clever analogy to terrorism and reactionary politics that instead of increasing security, plant fear into our minds and actions.

Not all stories carry a political undertone. In "The Grieving Owl," a male owl is working through the emotional turmoil that comes with the death of his spouse. The owl combines his natural instinct to hunt with the folk tale theme of a "wise owl" to hunt with the purpose of extracting bits of knowledge from his victims. What ensues is an amusing, bittersweet account of an owl learning random bits of information from mice and chipmunks. The owl's family's inconsequential attempts to set him up on dates and their inability to understand his thirst for knowledge add another human quality to this story.

No matter what the story, however, Sedaris manages to write in a way in which readers relate to these human-like animals. Whether reading about the squirrel and the chipmunk torn apart by the prejudice of the chipmunk's family, or about animals standing in line, complaining about red tape and bureaucracy, every now and then readers are prone to exclaim: "I know exactly what that feels like."

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