Fans of David Sedaris have been abuzz in anticipation of the revered satirist's Nov. 1 performance at the Ryman. This is Sedaris' first Nashville appearance since the October 2011 release of Squirrel Meets Chipmunk.
An absurd anthology of raunchy anthropomorphic animal characters engaging in everyday activities, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk inserts dogs, squirrels, cats, toads, turtles and rats into DMV lines, AA meetings and bouts with pancreatic cancer. Each tale is more graphic, hilarious and macabre than the next, and the fable-like stories bring out the very darkest side of Sedaris, as he uses animals to shine a light on the ridiculous side of human nature. The work recalls the tales of Jean de la Fontaine. but with a layer of filth smeared on top.
With Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris breaks away from his usual autobiographical satire for a fun and perverse allegorical journey. At times misanthropic and seemingly ill-natured, the book rarely takes a moment to reflect on morality or kindness, opting instead for extreme cynicism, which might leave some readers pining for a more traditional parable. But the lack of tenderness and evocative relationship development reflects real life more closely than any other collection of fables. Sedaris allows readers to take the bite for themselves, rather than table-feeding them a parable no one really believes would happen. Who really believes that the main character always becomes a princess or prince, or that the tortoise wins the race fairly?
Ian Falconer, well known for his work in The New Yorker and the popular children's book series Olivia the Pig, offers gut-twisting illustrations that complement the anthology with haunting and brutal depictions of each character's disgrace. The book gains grit and stature from the artist's renowned style — in some cases the artwork could stand alone in telling the story. As with most of Falconer's work, the illustrations are little more than sketches, in this case done in black, white, red and orange with an occasional splash of pink.
These non-moral tales display the shortcomings of repugnant folks like those you might meet while grocery shopping or waiting in line at the post office. Though it eschews simplified morality, the book teaches lessons by presenting characters who don't want to save themselves from their ignorance and self-indulgence — for example, the saturnine motherless bear who begs persistently for anyone to listen to her self-centered requests for pity. She ultimately finds that life could be much worse when she meets a bear with smashed teeth who lives enslaved by a small circus operation. But even as she herself becomes shackled and used in the circus, Sedaris writes that she "looks out into the audience and tells the story about her mother." Grotesque and simple in presentation, the stories remind the reader just how awful people can be.
Previous Sedaris works like Me Talk Pretty One Day and Barrel Fever featured family dynamics that made it possible to guess the stories' origins. With Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, it's hard to envision the inspiration for each of these fictitious and bizarre pieces of literary gold. If you have ever found yourself trying to wish away the crooked nose you inherited from your grandpa or the fat ass you got from your mother, you'll relate to the potbellied pig who attempts to diet his way out of genetics. Or if you've had fantasies of slapping that snarky clerk at the DMV, you might just find yourself friends with the toad, the turtle, or the duck, who go on about the horrendous things they would do to defile the not-so-civil servant.
Sedaris will share some of his tall tales on his tour stop in Nashville. If these are the only stories he tells, don't expect to feel uplifted. This is some of the satirist's best work, perfect for live storytelling, but keep in mind that it's dark, even by Sedaris' standards. Of course, the preponderance of evil over good seems timely, especially during election season. But don't expect Jean de la Fontaine, unless you imagine you'll see Sedaris break his legs in the alley behind the Ryman.