HOW UNFORTUNATE | a.s.o.u.e. books the 1st – 3rd

Netflix recently announced that it would be producing a series based on “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the acclaimed 13+ volume children’s series.  1%JIHAD staffers gallons and S.S. decided to take this opportunity to read the series over and figure out why it might be more than what meets the ever-present, sinister eye.

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gallons – So, S.S.  Here we are, we’ve both just read the first three books in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” – “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room,” and “The Wide Window.”  I read the entire series back when it was coming out, but it’s been several years so my memory is fuzzy.  You’ve never read them before.  We’re both pretty convinced, though, that there’s a lot more here going on than might meet the eye of your average 10+ child for whom HarperCollins designated these books.  How do we begin to look anew at the world of the Baudelaire orphans, Count Olaf, and Lemony Snicket?

s.s. – Good question.  There’s a lot of surprisingly difficult – one might say “high” – art going on in A.S.o.U.E. so I think it might benefit us to begin with something that we might call “low.”  Skipping over (for now) the narrator Snicket, we’ve got Daniel Handler beginning the series with some thoroughly digested tropes of children’s fiction, the most prominent of which is linking orphaned children to incompetent adults.  There are plenty of basic plot related reasons for making the Baudelaire children orphans – the entire inheritance plot doesn’t work without it – but it also creates a condition that forces the children to take some form of responsibility.  This condition is heightened further by the general idiocy of the adults around them.   It is truly remarkable how well-intentioned and simultaneously dumb Mr. Poe is (as well as his children Edgar and Albert *wink* *wink*).  Even the Baudelaire parents succumb to general incompetency. They manage to either not know who Count Olaf is (which seems ridiculous because he lives in the same city) or, worse, if they do know how dangerous he is they have failed to warn their children about him/prevent him from ever getting custody.   The same orphan vs. the adult world dynamic is on display in plenty of other children’s books (“Harry Potter” being the primary contemporary example).  I’m not sure what the exact message of this dynamic is apart from the simple truth that age does not equal adulthood/intelligence.   I think it’s pretty brilliant that Handler also has Olaf play into this theme. Olaf is clearly a very clever man, but he is also prone to making plenty of mistakes (such as all of his grammatical errors in “The Wide Window”) and most of them are comical.  It might be the only part of Olaf’s character that Jim Carrey got right.

gallons Yeah yeah yeah!  The way the adult characters are all pretty seriously flawed – Poe with his ineptitude, Uncle Monty with his weird narcissism, Aunt Josephine with her irrational fears – is sort of a fun mirror for the ways in which each Baudelaire child has one emblematic trait.  I think there’s something interesting going on in the way Handler/Snicket repeats the exact same cycle through the orphans’s skills in exactly the same order every time they come up – “Violet will invent something, Klaus will read about things, and Sunny will use her four sharp teeth to bite things!”  Handler deploys this schema ad absurdum, and so any deviation from this norm strikes us as an indicator that something is horribly wrong.

In a sense this all goes to say that really, most of the characters in A.S.o.U.E. are actually really lame and one-dimensional and boring, at least in these first three books.  The one character I feel I can point to as actually super fascinating is Lemony Snicket, the tale’s tragic narrator.   Tragic heroes are commonplace, but tragic narrators of Snicket’s variety are rare.  I think the first and most obvious thing to point out about Snicket is that he doesn’t fit into any of your standard narratorial-voice boxes – He’s not omniscient third-person, he’s not interior first-person, he’s definitely unreliable but not in the incredibly boring way most unreliable narrators are.  He posits himself as a character within the same universe as the other characters, following them around after the fact, trying to piece together what happened to the Baudelaires as some sort of imperative duty.  As a result, any dialogue he relates to us, any specific descriptions of basic actions, are completely impossible to believe – Snicket was not there, in the Reptile Room, listening to what Violet said to Klaus, or which nonsense word Sunny uttered.  It’s all a complete fiction but Snicket wants desperately for his reader to take it as fact.

s.s. – Snicket drops hints all over place about the general inconsistency and dangers of language and story.  Sunny doesn’t say any actual words but the ‘translations’ that Snicket supplies are easily the most direct and accurate assessment of character and event in the book.  Olaf is a supreme liar and in “The Wide Window” he even KILLS Aunt Josephine, who is basically the personification of order in language (too much? maybe too much).  Snicket and Handler clearly have an intimate understanding of the artifice in storytelling and its limitations.  In many ways, A.S.o.U.E. really gets at this problem better than, say, “Harry Potter,” where Hermione frequently finds a book in the library and (using the power of knowledge!) defeats an ignorant/arrogant bad guy.

J.K. Rowling gets better about complicating this theme later, but compare that to this disheartening passage from Klaus in “The Bad Beginning”: “All his life, Klaus had believed that if you read enough books you could solve any problem, but now he wasn’t so sure. ” (The Bad Beginning,” 88) and then later the more hilarious outburst: “‘You’re not going to marry Violet figuratively – you’re going to marry her literally!'” (97).  Amazingly, Klaus’s insight is frequently ignored by all of the adults who have any power over the situation.  Even Justice Strauss doesn’t catch on to the actual marriage that is happening in the play and her JOB is to see the objective truth of a situation.  The ability to parse fact and fiction is frequently what saves the children.  Klaus is able to understand that Olaf is literally trying to marry his sister and Violet is able to act accordingly.  Similarly, Klaus is able to piece together the disingenuous parts of Aunt Josephine’s ‘suicide note’ to discover the objective truth of where she is.   Snicket  has a similar problem with telling the Baudelaire story.   He is, after all, choosing to tell the story in this style.  Snicket is the one who depicts the orphans and Olaf as an exaggeration of their most useful or prominent characteristic.

Perhaps Snicket has made his characters ‘grotesque’ as a way of pointing the reader to things that are absolutely true.  Violet definitely invents things, Klaus is certainly a brilliant boy and Sunny will bite your hand off.  In regards to the ‘grotesque’  Flannery O’Connor once said that “…to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”  Perhaps Snicket has a more subtle understanding of the Baudelaire orphans but is aware that story can never capture that kind of subtlety so he draws “large and startling figures” to make sure that the reader does not miss the important bits.

OK.  Conspiracy theory over.

gallons – No, I really don’t any of that is very conspiratorial.  Snicket’s concern with the limitations language – both within the story and in how he presents it – is a huge factor that only gets huger as we get further into the series.  I want to say, though, that he approaches linguistic dissonance not only from the sort of negative, everything-is-broken perspective you describe, but also from a really excited place.  His  definitions of terms – ostensibly there at least in part there to benefit the vocabularies of children reading these books – are frequently either totally situation-specific or totally wrong – “The word ‘hackneyed’ here means ‘used by so, so many writers that by the time Lemony Snicket uses it, it is a tiresome cliché.'”  (“The Reptile Room”, 127) This definition is so unhelpful in so many ways that it basically exists purely to expose how weird language is.  I think this is actually a really interesting example of this motif, though, because it also exposes Snicket’s excitement about language – the “hackneyed” phrase he’s referring to is “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” which he obviously doesn’t have to use at all – He’s only dropping it so that he can define “hackneyed.” This kind of thing, and a lot of his playfulness with language in general (name games, referentiality, narrational strangeness), really reminds me of a sort of Nabokovian excitement about the goofiness of language.

The Nabokov connection extends even further, when I think about it, but that doesn’t become as evident until later books, so I’ll just leave this here as a teaser.

In any case, I think your O’Connor comparison is interesting, because the grotesque is such a frequent element of children’s books.  In O’Connor’s case, it usually takes the form of weirdly mangled people and broken down locations, whereas Snicket situates himself more in the children’s-book tradition by turning his characters into caricatures – which themselves are one of the more grotesque literary/visual objects we often come across.

s.s. – The “hackneyed” quote is a great one because I think it underlines the most important part of the series, which is that it’s really, really, funny.  Comedy is the probably the most underrated value of things that are “grotesque.” Caricatures are meant to be just that – funny.  Even Olaf – a definite  psychopath – is frequently hilarious.  Olaf definitely has some precedent in literature.  Specifically, I think Bulgakov’s Woland in “The Master and Margarita” serves as something as a template for Olaf.   In “M+M” Woland is the devil and he shows up Moscow to terrorize the bourgeois.  Both Olaf and Woland are funny, ruthless and have an eerily similar supporting cast.   What makes both Woland and Olaf extremely scary is that they can easily charm most of the people around them.  The Orphans are constantly battling this stupidity.

So, things to look out for as we go along, gallons – frequent wordplay and the deconstruction of said wordplay, the increasing presence of Snicket as character, the many faces of Count Olaf, and the never ending line of idiotic orphan care takers.

I’m excited.

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3 comments

  1. […] Netflix recently announced that it would be producing a series based on “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the acclaimed 13+ volume children’s series.  1%JIHAD staffers gallons and s.s. decided to take this opportunity to read the series over and figure out why it might be more than what meets the ever-present, sinister eye.  See the first installment, on the first three books, here. […]

  2. […] it might be more than what meets the ever-present, sinister eye.  See our assessments of books 1-3 here, and 4-7 […]

  3. […] it might be more than what meets the ever-present, sinister eye.  See our assessments of books 1-3 here, 4-7 here, and 8-10 […]

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