KaraPlatoni.com On dubious identities, the thrill of the chase, and the allure of very very bad things.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events
By Lemony Snicket, Harper Collins (1999)

The Basic Eight
By Daniel Handler, St. Martin's Press (1999)

Watch Your Mouth
By Daniel Handler, Ecco (2002)

Is Daniel Handler Lemony Snicket? Or is Lemony Snicket Daniel Handler? Hmm.

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 lives.”

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 Olaf’s 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 that’s 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. Snicket’s 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, either.

• • • •

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. It’s 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 Roewer’s golden boy, senior Adam State. Adam, with adolescent obliviousness, ignores them. And then things go very, very wrong.

Adam’s ghastly death is perhaps the least surprising thing about The Basic Eight, and announcing his murder here isn’t a spoiler, not by a long shot. He’s toast from Day One; and Handler has much sneakier tricks up his sleeve. Despite the bloody subject matter, Handler’s 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 one’s important, too. Last but not least. ‘A score of zero.’ Sorry.”

Handler deftly populates Flan’s high school with people you are pretty sure you already hate: inept administrators, drunken athletes, and the pouty goth (Adam’s 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: Don’t we all want our lives to be beds of roses?

Dr. Tert: Yes, but Flannery didn’t 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 think’s wrong with all delinquent teenagers Flannery’s age -- is that there is anything -- or anybody -- in her bed at all.

[Thunderous applause.]

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, “There’s a point, every Saturday morning, where the cartoon character keeps running until the land ends and he’s suspended in the air. He looks at the camera, suddenly suspicious of what he’s 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 Flan’s run over the edge makes its final sickening pivot -- it’s 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. Everyone’s 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 maker’s wrongs. The Glass family has plenty of secrets and wrongs, and once one of them gets ahold of some clay, well, there’s where the body count comes in.

This is a tragic opera, Handler warns you early on, and the family’s vices will lead to their destruction, but there’s no way for Joseph to get out of it. “You wouldn’t think of telling Madame Butterfly to wise up vis-a-vis Pinkerton’s 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 I’m sure it looks for a minute like I’m 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 Mouth’s genius is in its structure, which, as with The Basic Eight, isn’t 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. It’s 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 didn’t get out, either. “You in the audience are the same, you of the why doesn’t he leave? clique,” writes Handler. “Even if the plot is full of holes, the action full of unanswered questions ... you don’t want to be anywhere but here.”

And surprisingly, despite it’s sexual content, Watch Your Mouth isn’t much different in style or philosophy from Handler’s other works, even the ones for children. His stories are all about characters who can’t 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 arm’s 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 don’t you want to watch?


Originally Published: Fall 2002, East Bay Express