Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris is a collection of animal-themed short stories. Darkly humorous and without clear moral lessons, the book is reminiscent of Aesop’s Fables, with a modern twist. Sedaris himself was apparently inspired to write the book after reading a collection of stories from South African mythology about anthropomorphic animals.
What fascinated me about this book, as I brought up last week, was how much of a stark downer it could be. Though presented through the filter of nameless animals, topics including grief, hypocrisy, attention seeking, neglect, parenting, racism, and a wide range of other uncomfortable concepts are explored in a way that I found unsettlingly true to life. The use of animals makes it easier to focus on the raw, human interpersonal issues at play in each story. There’s no individual character to link these attributes to, so you link them to people. Whether it’s personal or societal, it’s a reflection you understand as real.
When I say it’s a “downer” I mean it in a more tongue-in-cheek sort of way. I find it strangely humorous how dark the stories manage to be. It’s not miserable, but it definitely did evoke discomfort or upset feelings at times. It had me thinking a lot about why I felt so drawn to keep reading, despite how it was making me feel. In some cases the stories get really bleak and even downright horrific, yet it never deterred me from continuing. It was cathartic, in a way, to know and read about these realities in a more symbolic way.
The book does a great job of playing with expectations too. In many stories I found myself judging the attitude or behaviour presented in one character, favouring the viewpoint of another, only to get more information that revealed the favourable animal to be even worse. In one notable case this involved the context of their conversation as well. I had immediately dismissed one over the other, then learned that the one I sided with was worse in a different way. The book inspired some interesting self-reflection in this way.
In a scaled-down way, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a great example of something I love about storytelling: it’s a great way to simulate experience. While I did say there were no clear moral lessons with each story, they do demonstrate models of abhorrent behaviour. I feel we’re all a little guilty of acting in these ways too, which reading about can help us be more aware of and try to correct. I recommend this book very much. It is especially good for reading in short bursts; it’s not for the more faint of heart.