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A Beastly Book
on October 27, 2010
Misanthropic seems like a strange word to describe a book in which nearly all the characters are animals, but that's what this book is. Almost entirely missing is the tenderness, the hopefulness about the possibility of meaningful relationships that characterizes the rest of David Sedaris' work. The one or two stories -- "Hello Kitty" may really be the only one -- that offer something in this vein aren't enough to redeem the book.
Like so many other negative reviewers, I'm a long-time fan of Sedaris, from his very first appearances on This American Life through all of his published works. I've been to readings and have signed copies of "Barrel Fever" and "Naked".
What's more, I was really looking forward to THIS book. I'd heard one or two of these "fables" on This American Life and hoped Sedaris would put out a volume of them. In fact, I was disappointed that his last book, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames", was not that. (Frankly, I thought "Engulfed" was weak in comparison to his previous three books.)
These stories are brutal, vulgar, even hateful. What's most disappointing is that there is nothing really being said about the hypocrisy, self-centeredness, arrogance, woundedness, ignorance and other negative human traits being lived out by the hapless animals in these tales. The only commentary seems to be that people are awful, and life is misery.
This is so different from Sedaris' previous work. Yes, there's always been a sharp critique of hypocrisy in his stories, but there has also been a sense of hope, and laugh-out-loud humor that we can SHARE in. Only a monster (or someone under an "emperor's new clothes" delusion about Sedaris) could laugh at these stories.
Probably the most repugnant thing about this book is Ian Falconer's illustrations. Not only are they extremely graphic in a way that seems calculated not to illuminate the stories but simply to disgust the reader, but they're often SPOILERS -- turn the page and the picture reveals something we haven't read yet, ruining the story. The book seems almost to hold the reader in contempt.
Moreover, the comic style of the illustrations evinces no sense that there could be any meaning to any of the suffering in these stories; thus they undermine the reader's desperate effort to squeeze something humane out of the stories. The illustrations confirm that this book is pure blood sport.
My hope is that the entire project was just one big, huge mistake -- that Sedaris and his publisher were so blinded by the cleverness of the basic concept here of a book of dark fables that they lost sight of how far off the hook the whole thing had gotten.
But I'm skeptical. If "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" seemed a half-hearted effort, "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" seems positively phoned in (perhaps with the defiled phone in a Bukowski story I once read). These stories are one-note -- the self-absorbed hypocrite comes to a bad end, usually out of all proportion to their actual crimes. They often feel incomplete.
The foul language and vulgarity that pepper Sedaris' other work in a way that is usually humorous are here Sedaris' primary tools, and as such become quickly tiresome. In place of wit, Sedaris offers us lots of anuses (literal and figurative) -- like a little kid who just learned about poop jokes, only this little kid is a grown man with millions of readers.
Even the book itself, as a physical object, is disappointing. It's a tiny little book to begin with, but the pages are extremely thick; without the illustrations and heaver paper, it'd be nothing but a chapbook.
My advice to Sedaris fans: skip this one. Really. No matter how much you're wanting that Sedaris fix, walk away. Go reread "Naked" or "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim". And then wait hopefully for Sedaris to come back to himself and write something worth reading again.