Sunday, 30 January 2011

Not Bed-Time Tales

Unlike most of my reviews, this took two days from the moment I put the book down. Anxiety about the status of this review turned to embarrassment when I realised that I italicised story titles (a big boo-boo) and used the word "genius" twice. And a misspelling of "United States", which might or might not have been my fault. Yeah. Me, editor.

Time to bury myself deeper into the grammar and style guides on my desk.

Not bed-time tales
Sedaris's twisted genius will leave readers seeking a solution after each story

first published in The Star, 30 January 2011

"For my sister Gretchen", reads the dedication to David Sedaris's latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Again, I looked at the little hardcover tome with the nice picture and wondered why Sedaris is moving to the under-12 market.

Then I consulted Google. While Gretchen Sedaris is younger than David, she should be at least 50 by now. And there was something he was supposed to have said in an interview, holding a knife with a hoof for a handle: "I love things made out of animals. It's just so funny to think of someone saying, 'I need a letter opener. I guess I'll have to kill a deer.'"

That'll teach me to judge a book by its cover. Still, it's pretty hard not to, even though Sedaris's writing isn't the kind one associates with bed-time stories.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (the subtitle is missing from the jacket flap) isn't really about a dating service for woodland rodents. It's one of 16 very short stories based on typical human dramas, except the parts are played by animals. Think Aesop's very short fables for cynical grown-ups.

You've probably queued up with the "Toad, the Turtle and the Duck" at a busy counter; endured the "Migrating Warblers"' travel tales; and the dialogue between the "Cat and the Baboon" sounds like something you'd hear at a beauty salon.

Some of these are sad, particularly the one about the orphaned bear, and the mouse with a pet snake, but it's because they were asking for it. The latter reminded me of a documentary in which someone was crushed to death by his pet python. It's kind of familiar but funny – Sedaris's dark kind of funny.

Reinforcing the book's dark adult theme and the mental near-immortality of the stories are the doodles of Ian Falconer, well-known for his kids' books about a pig and covers for The New Yorker. Quite a few images could fuel nightmares, even when you're awake.

The gloomy theme of the book is upset a bit by the title story, "The Squirrel and the Chipmunk". This short and bittersweet (more bitter than sweet) tale of a doomed, star-crossed love affair is perhaps the best example of Sedaris's genius. After its conclusion, you look at the cover again and, if you have a heart or "been there, done it", it's hard not to tear up.

Of course, chances are you won't recognise some of the situations being written about here. The tale of two lab mice sounds like a jab (pun intended) at die-hard adherents of New Age hocus-pocus, but I don't quite know what to make of "The Faithful Setter" and "The Cow and Turkey".

Is "The Parenting Storks" a parable on the perils of a lack of sex education? Is "The Mouse and the Snake" really about snakes, or an allegory for some governments' (read: the United States) habit of coddling two-bit dictators out of political expediency?

When countless Internet searches yield few clues and no cheat sheets, you curse and swear at and stew over Sedaris's twisted genius. You cannot solve it, but you know there's a solution.

Like Fermat's Last Theorem (proposed in the 17th century and proved only in the 20th), the fables you can't figure out will likely torment you long after you put the book down – an amazing feat for something that's just 160 pages long. Just hope you don't have to spend over three centuries figuring out what "The Grieving Owl" is really about.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
David Sedaris, Illustrations by Ian Falconer
Little, Brown and Co.
159 pages
ISBN: 978-0316038393


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