|Take me back:
to the archive!
to the bio!
to the e-mail!
to the book info!
to buy the book (via Amazon/US)!
to buy the book in other countries (via Book Depository)!
to upcoming live events!
Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket, Harper
The Basic Eight
Daniel Handler, St.
Martin's Press (1999)
Watch Your Mouth
Daniel Handler, Ecco
Is Daniel Handler Lemony Snicket? Or is Lemony Snicket Daniel Handler?
Consider the evidence. Snicket writes extremely twisted, melancholy books
for children. Handler writes extremely twisted, melancholy books for adults.
Snicket plays the accordion. Handler plays the accordion. No one has ever
seen Snicket and Handler in the same place at the time. Their publicists,
when pressed, claim to be fuzzy on the subject, suggesting that one should
try contacting one (or both) of them. This would be fairly pointless,
given that Handler is by definition a shifty person and Snicket a highly
elusive one, usually pictured on the about-the-author pages of his books
as a dark figure fleeing through the snow.
But here's the clincher. When some innocent elementary school administrator
schedules Lemony Snicket to read from his wonderfully morbid A Series
of Unfortunate Events, Handler inevitably shows up, claiming to be
Snicket's "representative." Then he plays a mournful little
accordion tune, and notifies his listeners that Snicket is absent due
to a vicious insect bite to the armpit (and here he produces a jar containing
the guilty bug). Then he warns his rapt young audience that the moral
they should take away from this particular unfortunate event is that they
should never, ever raise their hands. The audience freaks out. Snicket
(or Handler) gloomily triumphs again.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is now up to five volumes in a projected
run of thirteen, and they all have dismal names like The Bad Beginning
and The Miserable Mill. The books chronicle with perfectly deadpan
wit the travails of the world's unluckiest orphans, the three Baudelaire
siblings: Violet, a fourteen year old with a knack for mechanical engineering,
twelve year old Klaus whose nose is always in a book, and six month old
Sunny, whose main affinity is for biting the heck out of things with her
baby teeth. After a fire consumes the Baudelaire estate (and worse, the
Baudelaire parents) the orphans begin their flight from evil distant relative
and would-be gaurdian Count Olaf, who lists his occupation on www.lemonysnicket.com
an important resource for Snicket fans as "actor/murderer."
With the help of his fiendish theater troupe, Olaf tries to snatch the
Baudelaire fortune, which the children cannot cash in until Violet turns
eighteen. And so the chase begins.
Snicket, in his role as woeful but dutybound narrator, is oh-so-sorry
to detail for you the dreadful events that follow. Although Violet,
Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire were about to experience events that would
be both exciting and memorable, he writes at the beginning of book
number three, they would not be exciting and memorable like having
your fortune told or going to a rodeo. Their adventure would be exciting
and memorable like being chased by a werewolf through a field of thorny
bushes at midnight with nobody around to help you. If you are interested
in reading a story filled with thrillingly good times, I am sorry to inform
you that you are most certainly reading the wrong book, because the Baudelaires
experience very few good times over the course of their gloomy and miserable
The rest of the book -- and the series -- goes on in this exact vein.
The orphans must invent, research or chew their way out of Olafs
various kidnap-and-murder plans, as well as his attempt to steal the fortune
by marrying Violet. They also face, in no particular order, tribulations
including the metric system, meeting a man with a cloud of smoke where
his head should be, facing down an evil optometrist and an even more evil
secretary, enduring a very bad violin recital, and surviving both the
Incredibly Deadly Viper and a clown-themed restaurant. And thats
just the small stuff.
A few extra nice touches: each beautifully cloth-bound book begins with
an increasingly maudlin dedication to a very dead person named Beatrice
and ends with Snicket's personal note of apology on the back cover for
the horrors contained within. Snickets books have been compared
to those of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey and here we should praise
illustrator Brett Helquist's twisty mock-gothic drawings and inevitably
to those about you-know-who, the Quidditch-playing boy wizard from over
the pond. Also inevitably, there are people who object to these early
lessons in schadenfreude, most of whom live in Decataur, Georgia, where
the first book was banned because of the bit about Olaf marrying his neice.
Luckily, Snicket is unrepentant and, even better, unlike most other authors
in the kiddie creep-out genre, is under no circumstances going to give
you a happy ending. Or, as he points out, a happy beginning or middle,
Yes, yes, you may be thinking, unnerving small children is a productive
and valuable enterprise, but what has this Handler (or Snicket) done for
me lately? If you are the sort to mope about to pop music, then you may
have already encountered Handler is his role as liner note writer/accordionist
for the Magnetic Fields. Or you may have picked up his first adult novel,
The Basic Eight, which last year swept nearly unnoticed past critics
like so much wind over the prairie. Too bad. Its hilarious. Set
at the fictional Roewer High School (a thinly veiled parody of San Franciso's
elite Lowell), anti-heroine Flannery Culp and her glamorous friend Natasha
are members of the eponymous Basic Eight, a smartypants clique whose members
argue Tosca vs. Faust and casually abuse absinthe. When
the story opens, Flan has just written a series of ill-advised love letters
to Roewers golden boy, senior Adam State. Adam, with adolescent
obliviousness, ignores them. And then things go very, very wrong.
Adams ghastly death is perhaps the least surprising thing about
The Basic Eight, and announcing his murder here isnt a spoiler,
not by a long shot. Hes toast from Day One; and Handler has much
sneakier tricks up his sleeve. Despite the bloody subject matter, Handlers
storytelling is bouyant and mocking, full of devious wordplay. Love
means a lot of things, he writes. The first definition is
intense affection, followed by a feeling of attraction
resulting from sexual desire. ... But the last ones important,
too. Last but not least. A score of zero. Sorry.
Handler deftly populates Flans high school with people you are pretty
sure you already hate: inept administrators, drunken athletes, and the
pouty goth (Adams younger sister) who finally gets something to
cry about. (Between her black lipstick and her black clothes and
dyed black hair I would have to say her overall impression was distinctly
mesquitelike, Flan writes. If you were bad all year and of
the Christian faith, you could expect Rachel State in your stocking.)
Then he gives you some who are even more repugnant, mostly ambulance-chasers
who turn out to play pundit after a teen murder, like smarmy talk-show
host Winnie Moprah and her constant guests moralist Peter Pusher and Dr.
Eleanor Tert, a former cocaine-addicted airline stewardess turned twelve-step
harpie. A sample:
Dr. Tert: Flannery Culp wanted her life to be a bed of roses.
Winnie: Dont we all want our lives to be beds of roses?
Dr. Tert: Yes, but Flannery didnt know how to stop and smell the
roses that were in her bed.
Peter Pusher: What I think was wrong with Flannery Culp -- what I thinks
wrong with all delinquent teenagers Flannerys age -- is that there
is anything -- or anybody -- in her bed at all.
Yes, I know: eerily familiar. But even better, Handler lets us hear Flan
talk back. (Says Tert says of her coke-sniffing stewardess days, I
felt like I was flying. Snaps Flan, You were flying.)
With Adam dead, the rest of the book is about unravelling -- for the clique,
the school, and Flan herself -- or as she writes, Theres a
point, every Saturday morning, where the cartoon character keeps running
until the land ends and hes suspended in the air. He looks at the
camera, suddenly suspicious of what hes been walking on. Sometimes
he waves. Then gravity takes over and the joke finishes as a burst of
dust on the canyon floor. ... I thought I knew what I was running on,
but now I ... saw that the joke was reaching its punch line. The line
where you punch. And from there -- the moment when Flans run
over the edge makes its final sickening pivot -- its a very long
way down. The Basic Eight is dark, yes, and it has a couple of
super-duper fake-outs way too sneaky to be revealed here. No hints: just
enjoy the fall.
Handler's latest is stronger stuff altogether. Watch Your Mouth,
which bills itself as an incest comedy, is going to give the
folks in Decataur conniptions. Based on the stuff of high drama -- sex,
family, revenge and various permuations thereof -- Watch Your Mouth is
in fact written in operatic structure, with references to what the chorus,
conductor and lighting technicians are doing, onstage and off, and how
they influence the story as it unfolds. Lurking in the backing of
the aria like a rapist hiding behind a fire escape, The Unknown Dread
is usually sounded by some trombones: a simple, sinister tune, dark and
low like fog on a swamp, writes Handler. The Unknown Dread,
abbreviated in music criticism journals as T.U.D., will creep
in and out of the orchestration whenever vague and hopefully-imagined
trouble clouds the stage like hot water.
And the conductor in this opera whips up plenty of T.U.D. The story goes
thusly: bumbling, hormone-addled college student Joseph (tenor) spends
the summer living with the family of his lusty girlfriend Cynthia Glass
(soprano) and finds himself among very strange bedfellows, indeed. Everyones
in bed with everyone else, and then there's the golem. A golem is a mythical
Jewish creature, built from clay and animated by secret words to avenge
its makers wrongs. The Glass family has plenty of secrets and wrongs,
and once one of them gets ahold of some clay, well, theres where
the body count comes in.
This is a tragic opera, Handler warns you early on, and the familys
vices will lead to their destruction, but theres no way for Joseph
to get out of it. You wouldnt think of telling Madame Butterfly
to wise up vis-a-vis Pinkertons return, he writes, Or
asking Othello to rethink his hankie-as-proof-of-adultery schema, or telling
all those women in winged helmets to sit down together and think up a
way to break the Ring Cycle. And thus cautioned, let me give you
another warning: this book is graphic. On this stage nothing is kept back
from the audience; there are no tasteful fade-to-black moments and there
is an incredible abundance of what the characters insist on calling intergenerational
sex, much of it vicious and vaguely awful. (As her breathing
got shorter and shorter her fingers contracted into a grappling hook.
I faintly heard the crack of the skin on my knee breaking. ... To the
audience Im sure it looks for a minute like Im killing her.)
I tried to keep count of the uses of the word orgasm and then
gave it up as a lost cause.
Although the squeamish may want to back out by mid-book, Watch Your
Mouths genius is in its structure, which, as with The Basic
Eight, isnt truly appreciable until the end. The story is full
of false leads, so many that eventually one wonders if any of it happened
at all, if the entire book was built around some elaborate verbal pun:
perhaps something about what people who live in Glass houses shouldn't
do, definitely one about an exodus from a house of bondage. Its
a story about characters who fall apart, about illusions that crumble
if you speak the right words, just like a golem should. And for the strong-stomached
who make it to the final chapter, the joke is on you; you knew this was
a tragedy, and you didnt get out, either. You in the audience
are the same, you of the why doesnt he leave? clique, writes
Handler. Even if the plot is full of holes, the action full of unanswered
questions ... you dont want to be anywhere but here.
And surprisingly, despite its sexual content, Watch Your Mouth
isnt much different in style or philosophy from Handlers other
works, even the ones for children. His stories are all about characters
who cant escape their fate, who must remain onstage or in the chase
until the story plays itself out. We know that A Series of Unfortunate
Events is only gripping as long as the orphans are miserable and Count
Olaf is only an arms length away; we know that tragic operas end
with bodies strewn across the stage, that love is a score of zero. Bad
things happen, says Handler (or Snicket.) And dont you want to watch?