I don’t know if you’ve been able to tell based solely on what I’ve written here thus far, but I’m a pretty sarcastic gal. Depending on which of my friends you speak with, you might even hear the word snarky used to describe me — that I cannot confirm or deny.
If there are any of you out there who share my fondness of the sardonic, pick up a book or two from Lemony Snicket‘s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Its run is full of shyly satirical phrases, sentences and paragraphs (more on those in a bit). Oh, and in case the series’ name isn’t a dead giveaway to its themes, let me be blunt. These books deal with the unlucky, so much so that there are thirteen of them — The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, The Ersatz Elevator, The Vile Village, The Hostile Hospital, The Carnivorous Carnival, The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, and, of course, The End. (I find it incredibly funny and interesting that the last book I read in 2008 was The End. I am not making this up.)
The series tells the story of the three Baudelaire children — Violet, aged fourteen; Klaus, aged twelve; and Sunny, a baby — who the reader quickly learn are in for an extremely odd sequence of events. The first thing they have to endure, however, is tragedy in the form of their parents’ death and the destruction of their home. The two circumstances, aside from being terrible, happen to also be simultaneous, as Mr. and Mrs. Baudelaire are killed when their grand and glorious house burns down to the ground.
The children, now orphans, are sent to live with a distant relative by the name of Count Olaf. I’m not exaggerating when I say that chaos then ensues. Judge for yourself; here’s an brief list of what Violet, Klaus and Sunny encounter during books one through thirteen:
- the author’s siblings;
- blind leeches with a keen sense of smell and a bottomless hunger;
- green cigarettes;
- a hunchback, a contortionist and an ambidextrous man;
- made-up medical procedures;
- a misnomer-loving herpetologist;
- questionable fashion choices;
- territorial crabs; and
- the letters V.F.D.
Intriguing as I’m sure that all sounds, I can’t go into greater detail without giving away too much of the thirteen books’ plots. What I can tell you is this:
Each Baudelaire has a very specific interest or hobby — Violet is an inventor, Klaus an avid reader, and Sunny is first a lover of biting things, then a fan of cooking when she gets older — that comes in handy several times during the course of each book.
Count Olaf is a master of disguise, or at least thinks he is. He is also not what he seems, and I don’t mean that in the sense that a disguise is an illusion and therefore hiding what is real versus what is imagined. Olaf is not what he seems because, in the end (and in The End, come to think of it) the reader sees a phenomenally different side of him, albeit briefly.
Most characters, even the ones who are secondary, have names that are either based in literature or are anagrams of those names. Though I couldn’t keep track of them all, I still found it fascinating that the author could.
Speaking of both the author and things that are fascinating, what I found the most interesting about these books — from a writing perspective, anyway — is Lemony Snicket’s inclusion of himself in the story. He tells the Baudelaires’ story as if it were true, and repeatedly informs the reader how he has pieced together the children’s tale over time. He also sprinkles throughout the pages of each book deprecating anecdotes about himself (“Overall the shack was too miserable to serve as a storage space for old banana peels, let alone as a home for three young people, and I confess that if I had been told that it was my home I probably would have lain on the bales of hay and thrown a temper tantrum” — The Austere Academy.) as well as warnings for the reader to put the book down, abandon the series and flee.
After a great deal of time examining oceans, investigating rainstorms, and staring very hard at several drinking fountains, the scientists of the world developed a theory regarding how water is distributed around our planet, which they have named “the water cycle.” The water cycle consists of three key phenomena — evaporation, precipitation, and collection — and all of them are equally boring.
Of course, it is boring to read about boring things, but it is better to read something that makes you yawn with boredom than something that will make you weep uncontrollably, pound your fists against the floor, and leave tearstains all over your pillowcase, sheet, and boomerang collection. Like the water cycle, the tale of the Baudelaire children consists of three key phenomena, but rather than read their sorry tale it would be best if you read something about the water cycle instead.
He then goes on to compare each Baudelaire to each stage of the water cycle.
For me, the absolute best part of the series, I regretfully say, is not the childrens’ story. In fact, it’s not even the children; while they do grow and change and even age during the thirteen books, how truly compelling can a teenaged MacGyver, a human library and a toddling chef be? No, what kept me reading was the the writing, as I’m sure you can guess. Sometimes, Lemony Snicket is just plain silly (“Having an aura of menace is like having a pet weasel, because you rarely meet someone who has one, and when you do it makes you want to hide under the coffee table” — The Slippery Slope.) but there are also portions where he is tender and insightful. Very early in the series a friend of the Baudelaires dies, which comes as a great shock. In The Reptile Room, Lemony Snicket writes:
We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.
I know that as you read those words, you immediately thought of the last time you experienced that exact feeling and the brief flash of uncertainty that undoubtedly flitted across your mind at that moment. This is precisely the power the author wields, though it should be noted that “Lemony Snicket” is a pen name, not that it matters. What matters is squeezed between the bizarre and the absurd, the irony and the wit: it’s the words that hold it all together.