David Sedaris is a man of many talents but he is arguably best known for the essays recounting his childhood as an effeminate only son in 1950s suburban America; his wily sisters and chain-smoking parents provide much of the disconcerting yet kindly humour that characterises his work.
When taken together with his essays telling of his later years in France – an expatriate existence shared with his tolerant-only-to-a-point partner, Hugh – it is hard to nominate a modern life more comprehensively offered up to the gods of literary, stage and radio entertainment.
Sedaris is a ruthless and hilarious judge of his own worth, never hesitating to drag himself down in the eyes of the audience: he is fussy, snobby and lazy. He is only slightly gentler in his handling of friends and relatives, but here affection and the sweetness of his nature are always close to the surface. In his work, Sedaris comes across as a man who, recognising his own weaknesses, has a great sympathy for the frailties of those who cross his path.
Now with Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk he has produced a collection of 16 short stories in which his cast are animals. With their calm and distant point of view – and in their refusal to be surprised by the depths of stupidity, cruelty and desperation at large in the world – the stories are reminiscent of Aesop’s fables. But whereas the old Greek storyteller often took a dim view of human nature, Sedaris veers close to pitch-black.
In one story, a bitchy baboon hairdresser will say anything to please her client; in another, a bear gets mileage from her mother’s death. A mouse is blind to her snake son’s murderous inclinations; a sanctimonious New Age lab rat won’t chant herself cured of AIDS. A stud dog blames his failing marriage on his wife; a mean-spirited cow takes pleasure in the fate of those who share her barnyard; an owl, symbol of wisdom, agonises in his own ignorance.
The stories are rarely funny in the snort-coffee-out-nose way Sedaris can so effortlessly be: here is an angrier writer than we’re used to seeing, one less willing to laugh off flaws. As always, his writing is beautifully clean and balanced, and often the stories end with a line, placed with perfect casualness, that is so ominous it’s actually intimidating: “they might have heard the snake, his belly full of unconditional love, banging to be let out.”
The fables hold up a mirror that can be bitterly amusing, but certainly isn’t merciful or flattering. Anyone looking for the Sedaris of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, for example, won’t find him here, and the collection will definitely disappoint many fans. But it is always a privilege to be shown another dimension to a writer, and Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is the work of one who is still pondering the ways of the world, refusing to stand still.
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