<-- Back to Main Page
<-- Back to Lemony Articles

The following review of The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth, by Daniel Handler, has nothing to do with A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The New Zealand Herald

Daniel Handler:The Basic Eight and Watch your Mouth

05.01.2003 By YVONNE van DONGEN*

The thing about reading three books on the trot by the same author is that you get to know their style, their tricks and their pre-occupations. My Daniel Handler immersion experience began with Lemony Snicket's book, the first in his Series of Unfortunate Events for children, and then his two adult novels, The Basic Eight followed by Watch Your Mouth.

As it happens, this was probably the right order in which to acclimatise myself to a writer whose subject matter becomes increasingly bizarre and, let's be honest, provocatively offensive.

So by the time I got to Watch Your Mouth, improbably though accurately described as an incest comedy-cum-Jewish fairytale, I was hooked.

By then I had an inkling of what to expect: an abiding interest in unhappiness in general, and parentless children in particular, a threatening world, an extreme narrative self-consciousness, a sly wit, knowing commentary on American popular culture, and a narrator who loves to toy with the concept of reality.

What this means is that by the end of both books the reader is left questioning what is real and what isn't, what happened and what didn't. If you can handle that sort of ambiguity and smarty-pants cleverness, Handler's your man.

If not, as Handler himself would say, these are not the books for you. He's a love-or-loathe-him sort of guy.

This unsettling technique probably works best in The Basic Eight, which to my mind is the most successful of his two adult works.

It came as no surprise to learn that the novel has already been optioned by the producer of As Good As It Gets.

Besides being highly visual, skilfully verbal and neatly structured, The Basic Eight could just as easily be called As Real As It Gets.

Based on an actual California murder, it centres on a high-school clique of talented, well-off students, seemingly operating in a world without parents. Sort of a hip Secret Seven.

The narrator is the archly named Flannery Culp, who begins the book hinting that she is incarcerated for murder and is transcribing her journal, adding and omitting as she goes, and even adding nonsensical questionnaires for the reader to give us the real story. Or as real as it gets, anyway.

She's not denying her guilt but she wants us to be clear about her motivation, since others like Winnie Moprah (geddit?) and therapist Eleanor Tert have put their own brilliantly parodied spin on her actions.

In Watch Your Mouth, college student Joseph Real Name Changed to Protect The Innocent (there's one of those in The Basic Eight too) may also be guilty of several murders, but his story isn't told in diary form.

This time it's an opera and a 12-step programme and a Jewish fairytale about a golem. There's a character called Dr Zhivago and a girlfriend called Cyn (as in sin) for short. Did I mention incest? Yes, that too.

And in case you didn't know, a golem is a monster made of river mud which appears to wreak havoc, but will really do anything you say. If it tries to speak, the Word of God tumbles out and the monster turns back into clay.

Lavish? This book is excessive. In its execution (often irritatingly self-reflexive) and its subject matter, Watch Your Mouth is outrageous, completely OTT and, surprisingly, incredibly funny.

Is it all a product of Joseph's pornographic mind or did a golem really rise up to punish an incestuous family?

I don't know. Handler doesn't know.

"The truth," he writes, "just flows under you like a river." But for me, the truth about Watch Your Mouth is almost drowned in the torrent of tricks.

Still, it's an irresistible, exhilarating ride.

$21.95, $29.95

* Yvonne van Dongen is an Auckland writer.