Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

I confess, I started reading A Series of Unfortunate Events last year because I was extremely busy and my book count was extremely low. My only exposure to the series previously had been the decent but not particularly good movie adaptation--which actually combines the first three books—and being impressed by the very nicely designed little volumes I saw in the store. I also read a couple interviews with Daniel Handler, the man behind Lemony Snicket, and was intrigued by his description of the series.

Reading the first few Snicket books, I was struck by the willful similarity between them—the plots were identical. The Baudelaire orphans, Violent, Klaus, and Sunny, whose parents died in a fire, are taken by their caretaker, Mr. Poe, to a new guardian, who eventually turns out to be evil, incompetent, or both. At the end of each book, their living situation has fallen apart, the guardian is frequently dead or MIA, and they’re on the way to the next event in the unfortunate series. The guardian in the first book is Count Olaf, the series’ primary villain, who hatches a plot to steal their family fortune. In each subsequent book, up until The Carnivorous Carnival, #9, Olaf disguises himself—as a detective, scientist, receptionist, auctioneer, et al, and the adults around the Baudelaires have no idea anything out of the ordinary is going on. It’s a little like a series of horror films, where the teenagers being hunted down have no recourse but themselves. At the end of The Vile Village, #7, the Baudelaires finally break from Mr. Poe and strike out on their own, seeking the mysterious organization V.F.D., which may hold information about their parents’ death. The rest of the books, from #8, The Hostile Hospital onward, mix things up structurally, as the orphans try to find old friends, solve the V.F.D. mystery, and find someplace they belong.

The real constant in the books, however, is Lemony Snicket, who is retracing the orphans’ steps and writing their history. He’s an engaging narrator, opening every book by warning the reader that the story to follow is quite miserable, and that they might be better off to read something else. As the series goes on, a meta-story begins to develop, one that is connected to the Baudelaire’s own. It involves Count Olaf, a woman named Beatrice, Lemony himself, and lots of daring escapades. Although this story is extremely interesting, and is revealed very well in snatches throughout the series, the full narrative is never given. Blank spots abound, plot points are missing, ambiguity is everywhere. While Snicket is an engaging narrator, he’s not a very direct one. The meta-story really pulled me through the slow spots in the series, and while it’s not entirely satisfying, it is thematically appropriate, which leads naturally into the next section of this review.

There’s really no way to discuss the series without discussing the end—which, conveniently, happens in #13, The End, so spoilers follow.

In The End, the Baudelaires seem to have found a safe place, a desert island inhabited by a group of people—many of whom are given names from Shakespeare’s The Tempest—and Ishmael, their benevolent-or-is-he leader. The villagers see right through Olaf’s disguise, the first people in the entire series to do so, and banish him. This leads to several weeks of peaceful living for the Baudelaires, but, unsurprisingly, the island is not as utopian as it first appears. Ishmael exercises, through force of peer pressure, an iron control over the populace, “suggesting” to them that any item that washes up on the shore would be better stored in the “arboretum” to prevent rocking the boat. The Baudelaires, however, are unsatisfied with this arrangement and sneak into the arboretum, only find a huge book called, of course, A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s here that the series shows its hand. It doesn’t explain, or even attempt to explain all the mysteries that have cropped up throughout the narrative. Although it is implied that many answers reside in the book—which is not the same as the Unfortunate Event books themselves—the reader is only able to read one short excerpt. Instead, the book serves as reminder that stories never really begin or end, that every story starts and stops arbitrarily and all life—and fiction—really happens in media res.

One of Ishmael’s favorite sayings is, “It depends on how you look at it”, and that turns out to be the watchword for the entire series—of course we don’t get all the answers, because we’ve seen everything through the Baudelaires’ eyes. Snicket makes the point that simply by shifting perspective, another 13 book series could be written on Olaf, or Ishmael, or any of the guardians, or, as in the case of the Snicket meta-story, someone not directly connected to the Baudelaire orphans at all. I’ve never seen a young adult series—or many adult ones, for that matter—so comfortable with ambiguity. It’s to Handler’s credit that the ending doesn’t feel like a cop-out. There’s a very real sense that he knows exactly what’s going on, and could pull back the curtain if he wished, but that’s not the story he’s chosen to tell. The exact relationship between the Snickets and the Baudelaires is never made explicit; the possible wrongdoings of the Baudelaire parents are never enumerated; things are left up in the air in many ways, but that only makes sense—we’ve only followed one series of unfortunate events, and the world is made up of nothing else.


Christopher said...

I picked one of these up in a fit of boredom at a homegoods store something like ten years ago. I thought it was some cheap trade book or something but it was really engrossing, and I read like half of it in the store. Do you think it was worth reading all of them?

Brent Waggoner said...

I enjoyed them a lot and the longest one only took me about an hour and a half to read. The only caveat is that i'm not exagerrating the reptition of the first four books at all. On the other hand, they're still fun to read and take no time at all.