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.
s.s. – Since our last recap things have gotten pretty crazy. “The Miserable Mill,” “The Austere Academy,” “The Ersatz Elevator,” and “The Vile Village” are pretty much universally more disturbing and hyperbolic then the first three books. Now might be a good time to trot out my children’s series theory – the books grow as the audience does. The idea is that all children’s series start out with some kind of basic formula (the formula in A.S.o.U.E goes something like i. kids get a new guardian ii. Olaf appears iii. period of distress iv. Olaf fails but the kids are still miserable) – then the formula gets tweaked for the first couple of books but remains mostly the same. If the series lasts long enough things take a twist somewhere in the middle. The audience is established at this point and is old enough to understand a more complex change of action. In A.S.o.U.E. things start to change in “The Austere Academy” when the Quagmire triplets show up. The plot becomes much more complex after the triplets’ appearance and subsequent capture. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it would be best if we try to trace some of the things we picked out last time around and see how they’ve evolved.
gallons – Astute observation, s.s. The children’s series theory absolutely applies here, and I’d say you’re definitely right in locating the first turning point at book five – “The Miserable Mill” is really quite a bit closer to the three books preceding it than the three following. Along with the introduction of the Quagmires, “Academy” also features the first mention of V.F.D., which will remain the weirdly guiding force of the entire series. I think we’ve also reached our next major turning point at the end of “The Vile Village,” but more on that later.
Of the things we said we should look out for last time around, almost all have become increasingly prevalent. Wordplay and Snicket’s treatment of language has gotten way more complex, Snicket’s own story is encroaching more and more on the Baudelaires’, and the nature of the orphans’ caretakers has also shifted.
I’d like to start with this last one, because I think we’ve seen the introduction of a new archetype in these four books – the benevolent-but-flawed adult. This is the character, first showing up as Charles (and to some degree, Phil) in “Mill,” who complicates the guardianship role by being willing to believe the children and listen to their story, but having some flaw that prevents them from being of any use. I’m looking mainly at Charles, Jerome, and Hector as these characters (the Quagmires sort of fill the same role in “Academy”). I’d like to distinguish them from the Poe/Monty/Josephine axis by recognizing their simultaneous desire to legitimately help the orphans, and the crippling fear which prevents them from doing so. While Poe is simply a blubbering idiot, these characters clearly know what’s up, but they’re too timid to do anything – Charles is Sir’s doormat, Jerome hates arguing so much that he’s rendered useless, and Hector (the apotheosis of this role) turns mute in the presence of the Elders because he’s “skittish.” Their fears serve to highlight the Baudelaire bravery, but they don’t come across as totally incompetent the way Poe, Monty, and Josephine do, or as evil, the way Sir, Nero, Esmé, and the Elders (the “official” guardians of these four books) do. The meaning of the “adult” in the series is thus seriously complicated.
s.s. – You’re right. The “well-intentioned adult” theme becomes more and more disturbing as we go along. There also seems to be a gradual move to making the guardians more distant. We never really find out who ‘Sir’ is, Nero is only sort of a guardian, ditto for Jerome and Hector. Compared to Aunt Josephine and Monty the current guardians are hardly integral in the plot. Poe, however, is still around all the time and he’s the worst. He knows exactly how bad things are for the Baudelaires, exactly how bad Count Olaf is and is the only person with the power to consistently do something about it and – he does nothing. He doesn’t believe the children no matter how often they are right and, despite the number of times he ends up saving them, he basically only does so by accident. All he seems capable of doing is protecting their fortune (legally) and setting them up with awful guardians. Poe is so bad that I almost think he is in on the entire budding conspiracy and is somehow after the fortune himself. It’s no wonder that the orphans basically give up on him ever being useful by the time we get to book six.
Of course the counter to the adults is the Quagmire triplets who actually manage to help the orphans. If I remember correctly, the Quagmires are the only other children we have really encountered so far (minus Carmelita Spats) and while I was reading I kind of couldn’t believe that there had been no other children in a children’s book. The Quagmires immediately offer some much needed relief to the story and make it “fun” to read for awhile. Duncan and Isadora share similar obsessions with the orphans and offer some kind of strange not-actually-love-interest-but-totally-a-love-interest intimacy with Klaus and Violet. The subsequent capture of Duncan and Isadora allows for a new wrinkle in the story that, mercifully, gives the orphans something to work toward. You can only sustain the “fleeing” narrative for so long and it’s more fun to read about Violet, Klaus and Sunny trying to rescue someone than it is to see them try to evade Count Olaf again. Given the increasingly complex plot, I am starting to wonder where the Quagmires fit into all of this – are they related to Snicket?
gallons – I don’t know about any sort of relation, there. But I do know that Snicket has made himself infinitely more present in the story these past few books. From his Olaf-referencing intrusion near the middle of “Academy,” in which he recalls attempting to warn Beatrice of Olaf’s imminent approach, to the introduction of a short-lived character named “Jacques Snicket” in “Village,” Snicket pushes himself into the Baudelaires’ story more and more as we move along. Most central, as far as I can tell, is the way the mythical Beatrice starts to figure in. In “The Ersatz Elevator,” Esmé Squalor reveals herself to be a villain (as opposed to just a very, very unpleasant person) when she shoves the orphans down an elevator shaft, saying, “‘I want to steal from you, the way Beatrice stole from me!”‘ (EE, 187) Until now, Beatrice has exclusively been referenced in every single one of Snicket’s dedications and in various stories about his own life. Esmé’s mention of her here makes clear that she’s an actual character in this tale, with influence on characters other than Snicket.
Beatrice is also an excellent entry point into Snicket’s many literary references, which really start ramping up in these four books. Beatrice is, of course, Dante’s lost love in the Divine Comedy. Beyond this, we encounter references as wide ranging as J.D. Salinger, Anna Akhmatova, Thomas Pynchon (“‘I’ve read up to Lot #49,‘” says Klaus, “‘ which is a valuable postage stamp.”‘ [EE, 173]), ancient Rome, the Iliad (or at least I assume Hector’s name is an Iliad reference), Isadora (and) Duncan (of course), Edgar Allen Poe (again) and beyond. The inclusion of such references is part of what makes rereading this books as a moderately-well-read adult significantly more fun than it otherwise would be. We also get endless wordplay on Snicket’s part, such as calling Olaf’s detective character in “VV” “Detective Dupin,” and calling the teachers in “AA” “Mr. Remora” and “Mrs. Bass.” The most important piece of wordplay, of course, is the enigmatic “V.F.D.,” a sinister acronym that has so far stood for Very Fancy Doilies and the Village of Fowl Devotees. The Quagmire triplets seem hellbent on communicating the actual meaning of V.F.D., but the multitude of things it could possibly signify make it hard to believe there is truly one answer to the question. Jacques Snicket gives us the beginning of a hint with, “volunteer…” but outside of that, V.F.D. could be anything. (V.F.D. strikes me as a very Pynchonian move – the shadowy conspiracy that is never what you think it might be. But more on that as we move along.) The uncertainty here is fraught with significance, and is a really good example of the way in which the series toys with its reader’s reliance upon language as something steadfast, and with his general expectations of certainty.
s.s. –Especially the expectations set for children’s books. I can imagine reading these books as a child and being simultaneously angry and delighted by the fact that everything is getting turned on its head. I am very impressed with the expectations that Handler has for his readers. They have to have the patience to follow the constant re-defining of words and trace the slow development of the over-arching plot while accepting the fact that the narrator is becoming a character in the book. That’s supposed to be a lot for kids, right? It’s a good thing that the books are so funny.
The teachers in “AA” are hilarious. I think that’s how every child feels about their teacher when they’re ten. I might as well be getting tested on the measurements of various objects. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be there, but I think the series is making a push for the natural curiosity of children. We are supposed to believe that, if given the resources, Violet would invent all kinds of things, Klaus would probably know everything and Sunny would generally be good at biting things – Same thing for Duncan and Isadora. Curiosity is exceedingly useful in the world of A.S.o.U.E. because it allows people to see through to what is really going on around them. All of the unwitting adults have no general curiosity and can’t really see beyond their own faces. The “In Auction” in book six is such a perfect skewering of this problem. Esmé has no idea why she wants anything, she just knows that she wants. Same thing goes for “good” people as well. Poe is at the In Auction because he is making more money and literally doesn’t know what else to do with it. Everyone just sees what’s “in” – they have no idea what “is.” Snicket, of course, is the one adult who seems capable of seeing beyond the surface story, but I guess we just have to trust him on that.
gallons – The adults in the series certainly put the children into perspective. Every moment of intelligence, every brave act seems that much smarter and braver next to your average Jerome or Charles or Poe move. And I definitely agree that Snicket is that adult who stands out. To come back to my Nabokov reference from last time and flesh it out – Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” is a book ostensibly about the life of now-deceased (fictional) poet John Shade, but we end up with his acolyte and annotator, Charles Kinbote, telling us much more about his own life as an exiled prince than about Shade. Shade’s work becomes an excuse for Kinbote to relate his childhood traumas and more recent foibles in the only arena where he’s allowed to voice these things – someone else’s story. I feel like a similar thing is going on in A.S.o.U.E. Sure, the Baudelaires are our central figures, but none of them has half as much of an actual fleshed out character as Snicket gives himself. To further the Nabokov comparison, Snicket/Handler’s obsession with language and its malleability mirrors Nabokov’s own obsession with word games – such as the “yellow blue tibia/ya lyublyu tebya” pun. It’s clear that, even more than the Baudelaires, even more than himself, Snicket values language and its endless inaccessibility. As far as I remember, this only becomes more true as we move along, with the Baudelaires walking off into the desert, alone in the world at the series’s second major turning point – the very end of “The Vile Village.”