Sinisterly Sad & Mirthfully Morose: A Lemony Snicket Reader
If I were Lemony Snicket, this article would begin by telling you to stop reading. I would politely suggest that your time might be better spent perusing recipies for marmalade. Or perhaps a picture book of puppies dressed up as movie stars. I would further urge you to avoid any attempt by me, Lemony Snicket, to enlighten you, The Reader, upon the sad literary history of The Beaudelaire Orphans.
Rather thankfully, I am not Lemony Snicket. But I should point out, neither is Lemony Snicket. The thirteen books collectively known as ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’ are the work of one Mr. Daniel Handler, novelist and occasional accordian player for The Magnetic Fields. You see, originally we all assumed Lemony Snicket was merely a pen name to seperate Mr. Handler’s more “serious” literary efforts from these alleged works for children. As with so many things in this world it wasn’t quite that simple.
But I digress.
I am one of those readers who blithely ignored every one of the warnings and did enlighten myself upon the sad literary history of The Beaudelaire Orphans. Beginning in 1999 with ‘The Bad Beginning’ and ending in 2006 with ‘The End’, the story of Violet the inventor, Klaus the researcher and Sunny the biter occupied many readers. It would seem the book-buying public have a taste for orphans being tormented and terrified by bad actors; as of 2015 the series is estimated to have sold around sixty-five million copies. And that’s not even including the various satellite books that have appeared in the series’ wake.
The plight of the Beaudelaire Orphans has once more become a spectator sport. On January 13th, (a Friday, I believe the papers said) Netflix released the first 8 episodes of a television series based upon the books. As reviewed recently here on Echo Base, this is a remarkably faithful recreation of the books. It should be. Mr. Handler is writing the scripts and serves as Executive Producer. It is also something of a radical departure from the books. As I watched ‘The Bad Beginning’ flicker across my TV screen, I realized three things in this particular order:
1: Neil Patrick Harris is fine as the villainous Count Olaf, but frankly my heart belongs to Jim Carrey in that role. This is no condemnation or complaint against Mr. Harris. It just is how it is, and I will remark on it no further.
2: Much like Douglas Adams did with his ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ series, Handler seems to be using the change of medium to embellish and expand his original stories. By the time Will Arnett and Colbie Smulders appear on the screen, I realized that these embellishments are likely to be extreme.
3: By the end of episode 2, I realized that I desperately needed to finish the books.
I read the first 10 volumes in ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’ from the summer of 2003 to the autumn of 2005. In other words, I stopped right before the publication of book 12, ‘The Penultimate Peril’. I purchased that and a year later purchased ‘The End’ upon it’s publication. I intended to read the last three books in one fell swoop. Things, er, “happened”, and I ended up with the entire series sitting neglected in a cupboard for 5 years. Then, for approximately 2 years, they resided in a closet. More things happened and the books languished in a box for approximately another year. 3 years ago, I hauled them out of the box and placed them, sheepishly, on a proper bookshelf. Where they sat undisturbed until 4 days ago.
‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’ is nominally aimed at child readers (or, heaven help us, the dreaded ‘Young Adult’ market) and in the early books it does feel a little like one of those old-fashioned “primer” series that aimed to expand kids’ vocabulary. The narrator (that Snicket man) constantly digresses – a word here which means to stop the story dead in it’s tracks so that the meaning of a particular word may be more fully expressed and explained – to give definitions of words he’s just used. The words being so defined are almost always dealing with unpleasant or anxious subjects. A sample from ‘The Bad Beginning’ goes thus:
“…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley – the word “rickety”, you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse” – alone to the seashore...”
These digressions only intensify as the series progress.
Indeed, by the time I had arrived at book 10 – “The Slippery Slope” – the series had begun to drift into the realm of the surreal. Snicket’s narrations are no longer that of an objective scribe, rather he himself is a character in the Beaudelaire’s tragedy. By book 7, “The Vile Village”, not only were the orphans running from Olaf, they were trying to solve the mystery of “V.F.D” and what relation those letters had to their parents. In fact, the Beaudelaire parents became figures of menace themselves. By the 10th book, cracks in the orphan’s fond recollections of their deceased mother and father were beginning to show. And as their plight grows more desperate, Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny all begin to wonder if they themselves aren’t becoming corrupted by their endless misery.
Handler’s prose style in these books is rather like the literary equivalent of silent film acting. The orphans are unfailingly polite, even when threatened with death. They speak in formal, stilted expositions, excepting baby Sunny’s gibberish outbursts which only her older siblings can decipher. But by the end, even Sunny is speaking in full sentences. Stilted, formal sentences.
By contrast, the adults are train wrecks of emotion. Every single adult the children meet is defined by selfishness, fear, cruelty, rage or sadness. Even the good adults are incapable of seeing the truth due to some personal flaw that ends up defining them. This can have the effect of becoming somewhat strained over the course of 13 books. As a reader, it’s irksome to meet a new batch of characters and know immediately how they will disappoint and/or betray the Beaudelaires by the final page. But Handler is clever enough to use those quirks to surprise the reader when they least expect it.
Handler makes a habit of repeating phrases and over-explaining things to a degree where a frustrated reader might want to skip ahead. Then at one point he constructs a paragraph that appears to be an endless repetition of a pointless phrase, and reveals this as a method for hiding a secret message to a reader. The idea being that most people would just skip over the boring paragraph and miss the important bit in the middle. By the final three books, the early atmosphere of malevolent whimsy has well and truly given way to a surreal, Grand Guignol style.
This highly stylized sort of writing can, as I mentioned earlier, become strained. Especially if the books are read in close proximity. Except damned if that Handler doesn’t deliver with some staggeringly beautiful and haunting moments. There’s a scene in ‘The Penultimate Peril’ when a mysterious man offers the Beaudelaires a chance to escape their current plight, but they do not.
“I do know who the man was, and I do know where he went afterward, and I do know the name of the woman who was hiding in the trunk, and the type of musical instrument that was laid carefully in the back seat… but I cannot tell you if the Beaudelaires would have been happier in this man’s company, or if it was better that he drove away from the three siblings, looking back at them through the rearview mirror and clutching a monogrammed napkin in his trembling hand…”
Handler, writing as Lemony Snicket, uses this moment to reflect on the dreadful wonder of the road not traveled and the inescapable truth that we all have tiny moments of choice that will effect our lives in gigantic ways. It also serves as a sort of prologue for the final book, despite appearing halfway through Book 12. There are many tiny moments like this throughout the entire series. They are all the more lovely for appearing in the midst of such absurd settings.
With the books’ heavy emphasis on wordplay it’s easy to see why the TV series has introduced the “V.F.D.” plot strand so quickly. The mysterious organization “V.F.D.” and what they might stand for weren’t introduced in the books until the very end of Book 5. I’m hesitant to say more for fear of spoiling anything for anyone, but it leaves the possibility open that the TV series is going to go in some very different directions than readers of the book may be anticipating.
I’m most curious to see how the show’s ending will compare with the books. The 13th book is a phenomenally somber wrap up to ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’. It makes a point, plays with our expectations, and leaves us with as many questions as answers. Whether the TV series comes to the same conclusion remains to be seen. Given that scene at the end of ‘The Bad Beginning Pt. 2’ featuring Will Arnet and Colbie Smolders that I mentioned earlier, it seems unlikely.
Still! As long as they don’t make as big a hash of this end as the 2004 movie did – the word “hash” here means “idiotically rewriting the end of ‘The Bad Beginning’ just to give Klaus a heroic scene” – I for one can’t wait to see how different the Netflix version is. So far, they seem to be getting it exactly right.