Best-selling author and humourist, David Sedaris, made his start on public radio which makes a lot of sense, given that his writing has a deadpan penchant for telling it like it is, even when ‘whatever it is’ is ugly, morose or, somehow, inhuman.  

Sedaris’s recent release, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is what he calls a “modern bestiary, a book where animals do things that people do.”  In other words, the book does not aim to have a moralistic outcome (a la Aesop), the use of animals is simply a defamiliarizing approach; a way to tell human stories that wards off cliché and even a sense of responsibility. Sedaris explains,

If you were trying to tell me that your friends ‘Mike and Susan’ were dating for 2 weeks and suddenly realized that they had nothing to talk about.  I would simply respond: “Well that happens.”  But if you told me that chipmunks were dating and they ran out of things to talk about, I’d be at the edge of my seat.  And beyond that, as a reader, I feel bad enough about myself, I don’t need to engage in something that’s going to make me feel even worse about who I am.

Seems simple, but Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, with all its clever little stunts, acts as a kind of reverse post-modern experiment, having faith in the simplest language (as opposed to approaching language as inherently flawed) to communicate concepts that are near impossible to express.  Like, for instance, the frigid reality of death, in the chapter, "The Motherless Bear":

In the three hours before her death, the bear’s mother unearthed some acorns buried months earlier by a squirrel. They were damp and worm-eaten, as unappetizing as turds, and, sighing at her rotten luck she kicked them back into their hole. At around ten she stopped to pull a burr from her left haunch, and then, her daughter would report, “Then she just…died.”

In three brief sentences, Sedaris bluntly puts forth the sting, surprise and inescapability of death without a hint of pathos: an impressive feat. Says Sedaris: “I’m not a terribly articulate person so writing has been very good to me.  I can do things on paper that I can’t necessarily do out of my mouth.” 

And though many people confuse Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk for a children’s book, the poignant collection of short stories is anything but light. In fact, to think of Sedaris’s latest as in any way vacant or frivolous is to make a mistake as damaging as the chipmunk makes in the heartbreaking story, The Squirrel and the Chipmunk.

Having lost out on love simply because the chipmunk hears the squirrel likes jazz and misconstrues the word to mean “something terrible like anal intercourse,” the squirrel never really recovers from the mistake. When, years later, she finally discovers that the harmless word is actually a “really quite pleasant form of music,” she harps on the simple misunderstanding for the rest of her life:

She forgot the definition of ‘jazz’ as well and came to think of it as every beautiful thing she failed to appreciate: the taste of warm rain; the smell of a baby; the din of a swollen river, rushing past her tree and onward to infinity.

Although Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is far from a moralistic book of fables, if there is one lesson to be learned from the experience of reading it, it is to never “fail to appreciate” simple, “beautiful things.”