Like these Disney characters, Sedaris’s animal characters enjoy simple pleasures that come with the kinds of relationships we humans experience. It is not clear if Sedaris’s animals have learned from human behaviour and socializing, or if coincidentally animals just think like us and communicate like us. The latter seems more likely as humans are largely absent from Squirrel.
Characters in Squirrel that forget or ignore the harsh truths of nature meet their demise morbidly at the end of some stories. Nature’s karma, I suppose. Sedaris’s fables highlight the triviality of the animal characters’ human-like problems: the destruction caused by a pet snake, the conversation parents must have with their children about where babies come from (appropriately by parent storks to a baby stork). Sedaris seems to be saying that these issues, among others, are not really issues, and that they seem to distract us from what’s really important, like watching your baby instead of meditating when there is a crow around (especially if you are a sheep, as Sedaris cautions).
Or maybe Sedaris is just using animals to make fun of humans. There is so much to make fun of. The front cover drawing of the squirrel romancing the chipmunk by candlelight says it all, although I’m wondering where the miniature wine glasses and candle came from.
The animals also over-think or take personally simple realities like impending death by a farmer’s hand. Squirrel is loaded with dramatic irony. What’s so morbid about some of these characters’ demise is not so much the gruesomeness, but that we, the audience, know what will happen, or have a good idea that something bad will happen, yet it delights us. Well, it delights me anyway…
Sexism plays a role too. There’s the chauvinistic rooster in the hen house, of course.
And racism? Yes, there is the Vietnamese potbellied pig who, like generations of his family before him, was born and raised in an unspecified country, presumably America, but was questioned by a parrot in his interview for a job at a museum about how his ethnicity would play a role in his work: “Can we expect to see more Oriental art?” the ignorant parrot asks, among other things. The pig kind of says yes to these questions in an apparent effort to appease the interviewer. When he starts to say something else, the parrot cuts him off, saying, “That’s all I wanted to know.”
Our lives and so many of our issues seem that much more stupid and senseless with animals playing our parts. Sedaris has found great humour in these pathetic attitudes and situations. He often shares these quirky stories with deadpan style, in calm and concise prose, perhaps to emulate the desensitized, ignorant comments, reactions and discussions that so many people make about race, sex, death, etc.
Squirrel reminded me that the truth hurts, but at least it can also make me laugh.
Oh, and the illustrations, by Ian Falconer, are bizarre and hilarious. One picture on the first page of every story. My favourite is a drawing of an owl behind a hippo. The animals are in black and white, except for the hippo’s orange anus and the owl’s orange eyes. In this story there is also a gerbil who wants to “try new food, visit exotic places.” This story and picture made me feel like sticking a tiddly wink up my nose as a child wasn’t such a big deal after all.