Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

I don't re-read books much; there are so many things that I think I want to read (or, at least, to have already read, which is not quite the same thing), that it's hard to justify time spent running through words I've already seen once before. But I've spent the last decade recommending The Basic Eight, an high-school murder story with a highly unreliable narrator that was Daniel Handler's first novel, published back in 1998 (in a very different world, pre-Columbine, pre-9/11, pre-cellphone, almost pre-Internet), and I felt the need, recently, to go back to it and see if it was still as impressive now as it was in memory.

(But what is as impressive under close scrutiny as it is in memory and at a distance?)

You'd have more trouble publishing a novel like The Basic Eight today -- especially from a major publisher. From the first page, we know that our narrator and protagonist, Flannery Culp, is a ward of the state, in some kind of institution for some horrible thing she did about a year before. And we know pretty quickly what that horrible thing was, and what day she did it, but we need to read through her journals as she presents them -- supposedly only lightly edited, but actually full of new commentary and special pleading. Flan was a high school senior, in an elite school in San Francisco, part of a group of friends -- now notorious nationwide -- called The Basic Eight. And she's going to tell us the story of the beginning of that senior year, from the letters she sent over the summer to a boy she had a crush on up through an eventful Halloween party and through the days after that.

And, along the way, Flan is going to lie to us. All first-person narrators lie at least a little -- unless their authors are both fanatical and dull -- but Flan is different: she has one big lie, which colors every page of The Basic Eight, and she won't admit to it until the end. The Basic Eight is a masterful example of a deeply unreliable narrator, a young woman who the reader knows is dissembling and misrepresenting all the way along -- but only at the end do we realize how much.

Basic Eight is as gripping and readable as I remembered: Flan's voice is tough and smart, damaged and immediate, with a smart kid's emphasis on vocabulary words and a thoughtful kid's sharp eye for the unfairnesses of life. It's a book that grabs immediately and demands to be read at speed -- though that's part of Flan's trick, to get you to read so quickly that you swallow everything she says whole.

I'll admit that Basic Eight is exactly the kind of book I love: unreliable narrator, text presented as an artifact, fancy writing, sneaky ending, big emotional stakes, huge secrets and reversals. Not everyone may look for those things in their books. But, if you do, you need to read Basic Eight as soon as you can.

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