I've had the whole thirteen book set (a tridecalogy!) of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events for a while now. The dark secret was that I'd only read six of them. Nothing makes me feel more like a phony than owning books I haven't read, though I at least had the decency to move them to a shelf upstairs, rather than display them openly, where someone might ask and I'd have to come clean. Being written for children, the books are not difficult, and though each is 200+ pages, between the big print and the widely-spaced lines, it didn't take me long to finish each one.

The premise is that a trio of young siblings, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, having been orphaned by a terrible fire, are taken to live with a guardian. However, they are pursued by the dastardly Count Olaf, who wants nothing more than to get his hands on the children's inheritance. Count Olaf and his vile associates concoct various nefarious schemes to do away with the guardians, who are frequently incompetent or spineless, if not outright evil.

The first six books are pretty formulaic. The orphans get a new guardian. Count Olaf shows up in a disguise that is transparent to the children, but manages to fool all the useless adults who are supposed to protect the children. The children uncover his devious and usually ridiculous scheme, and use their intelligence and resourcefulness to thwart him. Count Olaf gets away to do evil some other day. The end.

The writing style is the real hook here. The author tells you repeatedly that this is really such an awful story and he encourages you to put down the book immediately to read something more pleasant. The back cover of each book is a letter from Snicket to any prospective readers, telling them why they do not want to read the book. The guy is not afraid to take a gimmick to the extreme. For example, in Book 11 (The Grim Grotto), Snicket spends multiple pages describing the water cycle, so as to bore the reader into sleep so that he will not have to read the terrible things that happened to the Baudelaires.

These are books for book nerds; in fact, a oft-repeated idea is that well-read people are less likely to be evil. There are jokes embedded in the text for careful readers.
The book was long, and difficult to read, and Klaus became more and more tired as the night wore on. Occasionally his eyes would close. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over.
And there are general word jokes. Snicket will use a word, then define it for this very specific context. He will also explain common turns of phrase, so that he can then use it in the course of the book, sometimes in very literal ways. The result is very clever, funny, and frequently absurd.
At this point in the dreadful story I am writing, I must interrupt for a moment and describe something that happened to a good friend of mine named Mr. Sirin. Mr. Sirin was a lepidopterist, a word which usually means "a person who studies butterflies." In this case, however, the word "lepidopterist" means "a man who was being pursued by angry government officials," and on the night I am telling you about they were right on his heels. Mr. Sirin looked back to see how close they were--four officers in their bright-pink uniforms, with small flashlights in their left hands and large nets in their right--and realized that in a moment they would catch up, and arrest him and his six favorite butterflies, which were frantically flapping alongside him. Mr. Sirin did not care much if he was captured--he had been in prison four and a half times over the course of his long and complicated life--but he cared very much about the butterflies. He realized that these six delicate insects would undoubtedly perish in bug prison, where poisonous spiders, stinging bees, and other criminals would rip them to shreds. So, as the secret police closed in, Mr. Sirin opened his mouth as wide as he could and swallowed all six butterflies whole, quickly placing them in the dark but safe confines of his empty stomach. It was not a pleasant feeling to have these six insects living inside him, but Mr. Sirin kept them there for three years, eating only the lightest foods served in prison so as not to crush the insects with a clump of broccoli or a baked potato. When his prison sentence was over, Mr. Sirin burped up the grateful butterflies and resumed his lepidoptery work in a community that was much more friendly to scientists and their specimens.
At which point, he goes on to explain the figurative use of the phrase "butterflies in your stomach."

For all the humor, the subject-matter is dark, dark, dark. I mean, we are starting off with some kids whose idyllic lives have come to an end with the untimely death of their parents, and there is a lot of fire and death to follow. Plus, there is the fact that pretty much every single adult in these books is useless. There are the bad guys, and then there are the well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual guys. The children are repeatedly let down by people that they should be able to rely on for help or protection. In fact, each book seems to illustrate a new way in which other people can let us down.

During the seventh book, the formula breaks. I suppose Mr. Snicket got tired of it. I admit that I was a little tired of it, too. Before Book 7 (The Vile Village), I was determined to make it all the way to the end of the series, at which point I could turn them all into the used book store for credit to buy some other series of children's books that I might enjoy more. But as I continued, I started to think I might be keeping a spot for these on my shelf. And by the time I finished, I was convinced that these books were something amazing and wonderful.

Here, I will take a moment to differentiate between Lemony Snicket and Daniel Handler. Lemony Snicket is the pen name of Daniel Handler. However, sometime after Mr. Handler got bored with writing the same book, one of the ways he changed it up was to make Mr. Snicket a character in the books. From the beginning, Snicket is the storyteller, someone who exists in the same world as the characters and knows about them and is conveying to us what happened. He occasionally talks about himself, such as when he told the story about his friend the lepidopterist. However, at some point, Snicket becomes a character in the story he is writing. He is never an actor in this particular story, the story of the orphans, but he plays in other stories of the world that share many of the same characters.

So after the formula breaks, we start to see some other themes in the books, other than reading is awesome and sometimes grown-ups suck. And I was impressed at the complexity of the ideas being conveyed in these children's books. In Book 10 (The Slippery Slope), the children learn that when fighting evil, you have to be careful not to become evil yourself. Then in Book 11 (The Grim Grotto), they come to the realization that everyone is partly noble and partly wicked, rather than the world being simply divided into good guys and bad guys.
People aren't either wicked or noble. They're like chef's salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.
They later realize this lesson applies not only to themselves, but to their dead parents and the villainous Count Olaf as well.

The last book is very strange, and it's a pretty strange series to begin with. The children manage to escape Count Olaf's clutches for the last time and find a place where they can be safe from the treachery of the world, where the final lesson they learn is that there is no place that is safe from the treachery of the world. And then the story just ends, after a long discourse about beginnings and endings and how you can never know the whole story. The last book was simply magnificent. I was glad that I'd made the commitment to read them all because the payoff was so great.

I have no idea how an actual kid might react to these books. The reading level remains simple, and all the difficult words are explained, but the themes are big. A kid could probably still enjoy reading the books without completely understanding everything, and I don't have a problem with exposing children to big ideas through stories about guys named Count Olaf. That's why we have stories - to enable us to understand life's difficult lessons.

*Note: There is a movie that tells the basic story of the first three books. I haven't seen it in a while, but I recall the tone as being fairly faithful, but ultimately it was a failure. The pacing was frantic, and so much of the enjoyment of the books comes from the word humor, which would be hard to do in a movie in any case.


rita said...

My two sons read the series when they were kids and loved them. They hated the movie because it left so much out and they felt that Olaf was not portrayed correctly.

Anonymous said...

I would like to read them!