Thursday, October 26, 2006

Book-A-Day #99 (10/23): The End by Lemony Snicket

"In any case, this is how all our stories begin, in darkness with our eyes closed, and all our stories end the same way, too, with all of us uttering some last words -- or perhaps someone else's -- before slipping back into darkness as our series of unfortunate events comes to an end." (pp. 319-320)

Everything I said last year about The Penultimate Peril is still true about The End; this is a remarkably dark series of books -- particularly one aimed at 9 to 12 year olds -- saturated with gloom and obsessed with the difficulty, even the impossibility, of doing good in an imperfect world. Yes, intelligent kids of that age often have realized the world is unfair and nasty, but there's a level of world-weariness here that is well beyond that. Young Adult books typically harness that preteen sense that the world is all wrong, and that those readers (the proverbial next generation) are the ones who must make everything right, if they work hard enough. But, in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," all the Baudelaire orphans can hope for is to find a somewhat safe, quiet place away from the world to live in peace -- and even that is a distant hope.

The series has also gotten more and more writerly as it went along. It always had a metafictional element, as "Lemony Snicket," the author and narrator, was a person in the fictional world of the Baudelaires, following behind them to investigate their exploits -- and it gradually became clear that his story was deeply linked to theirs.

In fact, The End (and the last third or so of the series in general) is so writerly that I started comparing "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (SUE) with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Mr. Harry Potter. The Potter books are for kids who like stories, who love adventure -- they've translated pretty well into movies (questions of length aside), because what is special about them is the story. SUE, on the other hand, turned into an odd but interesting (and financially unsuccessful) movie -- because, I think, the SUE books are more essentially books. This story isn't "unfilmable" (hardly anything really is), but it's a story about the power of words, and the trickiness of words, so the words that tell that story are more important.
Sidebar: there's also the question of orphans. Harry is orphaned off-stage at the beginning of his first adventure -- as are the Baudelaires -- but the similarities end there. Harry's story is about finding a community in which he can be loved and appreciated, where he is important and special. The Baudelaires have only each other; even their friends and associates are forced to leave them by the press of events. They are much more thoroughly orphaned than Harry is, even though there are three of them. And even though more people die in the Potter books. And even though the Potter books seem to be more about death.

Similarly, Voldemort is, I'm afraid, a stock Dark Lord -- with his own style and verve, yes, but still a variation on a character we've seen a million times before, who can always be counted on to monologue long enough for the hero to think up a last-ditch, one-in-a-million plan to save the day. Count Olaf, on the other hand, is simply the worst relative anyone has ever had -- casually cruel, venial, unpleasantly sarcastic, and all-too-much like ourselves for comfort. Olaf is the greater creation, because we can almost like him, because we can almost see ourselves in him.
So the SUE books are something of a test, I think -- the kids who love them are going to be the next generation's serious readers, the writers and editors and critics of 2030, as well as the folks who just read those future books. Good luck to you, kids -- "Snicket" is setting the standards high for you, but I'm sure you can live up to it.

I poked around a bit at Amazon, reading the reader reviews, some of which are a bit obtuse (the ones complaining that not all of the mysteries and questions of the series have been neatly tied up and explained). Just in case any of those people are reading here, I'll try to be more blunt than Daniel Handler was:
  1. Life is unfair.
  2. Nothing ever really ends, and nothing ever really begins; everything is connected to more than you could explain, and there will always be oversimplifications, self-serving explanations, omissions and elisions.
  3. In mediocre fiction, you know the story is over when all of the good people have had a happy ending and all of the bad people have had an unhappy one.
  4. But, in great fiction, you know the story is over when you the reader have been changed by the reading of it.
  5. This story is now over.
The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

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