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

Washington Post

Children's Books

The Subversive Snicket
Beware these seductive tales of woe and wit, and the mysterious Mr. who penned them.

By Robert Aubry Davis
Sunday, June 2, 2002; Page BW05

It has pleased certain mommies at the grocery store, among other venues, to see my son Patrick reading the works of Mr. Lemony Snicket with such absorption as to allow no disturbance of cereal choice (or conversation among elder and taller people). "Is this not wonderful? Are you not pleased?" they ask, seemingly amazed that a 10-year-old boy should be lost in reading, and wondering, perhaps, how this miracle might be replicated in their own homes. "I see you have not read these darkling tales yourselves," I reply, for how can you warn them of what lies between the covers of the eight volumes of the distressing saga Mr. Snicket has dubbed A Series of Unfortunate Events? (All series entries are available in hardcover from HarperCollins for $9.95)

Mr. Snicket has gamely tried. The first sentence of the first book, The Bad Beginning, says it all: "If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book." And indeed, if reviews about the following things are not passionately in your line -- literature ostensibly designed for young readers, stories that put children in frightening and morbid situations, humor of the darkest persuasion -- then you should simply follow the advice from one of the original draft first sentences of that first book: "Please don't read this."

For this is a dark tale, "darker than a pitch-black panther, covered in tar, eating black licorice at the very bottom of the deepest part of the Black Sea," as Mr. Snicket writes in Book the Sixth, The Ersatz Elevator. It is mordant, which is a word that comes from the old English for "biting with your teeth," and more than once in this series you may draw back a figurative bloodied hand. It is sad. Our heroes are the three Baudelaire children, who are told in the very beginning of Book the First that their home has burned down and that both their parents are dead. They are told this by the ineffectual Mr. Poe, a frustrating and inept financial caretaker of the children's considerable estate. Note that in the very names of the characters we have stumbled already into references to dark (but mostly non-humorous) literary creators.

An ongoing theme is the dedication of each book to the mysterious and clearly predeceased Beatrice. "Darling, dearest, dead" she is at first; this grows more personal with each volume. "You will always be in my heart, in my mind, and in your grave" is the dedication to Book the Fifth, The Austere Academy. Our most recent installment( The Hostile Hospital, Book the Eighth) is the most poignant yet: "Summer without you is as cold as winter. Winter without you is even colder." Now a certain Beatrice was the idealized paramour of an Italian poet named Dante (that is to say, he wanted her to be his girlfriend). Dante's best-known work was mostly dark, and I think mostly humorless, unless you personally knew some of the local types he stuck in Hell to be tortured in his famous poem.

There is a villain who is truly evil as opposed to merely inept, and he is Count Olaf. He wants the Baudelaire children's inheritance, and by dint of being either a third cousin four times removed or a fourth cousin three times removed, he is presented with the opportunity to have the children live with him in Book the First. We soon learn that he desires both their money and their personal deaths. He is also a theatrical director, and Mr. Snicket lets us know early on that he has no truck with this sort of person. Like ever so many theatrical directors, Count Olaf is filled with the image of his own greatness, and surrounds himself with bizarre actor-henchpersons, including a bald man with a long thin nose, two powder-faced women, an angry man with hooks for hands, a person of great size and unknown gender. The scenes with them remind one of the films of another, somewhat later Italian gentleman, Signore Federico Fellini, who was both dark and humorous.

The books are filled with tension as the three children try to escape the distressing and even depraved circumstances in which they are placed, all the while trying to convince some responsible adult that they are telling the truth about their straits. This unrelieved darkness is illuminated only by the nature of the three themselves, and their devotion to each other. Violet, the eldest, is 14, and is inventive and clever with her hands. Klaus is 12 and an avid reader, the kind who can extrapolate a viable hypothesis for something based on seemingly unrelated readings (which is a way of saying he can figure out how to get out of a jam by sticking odds-and-ends of ideas together). Sunny, their baby sister, has amazing teeth and a plucky spirit. She also speaks a baby talk that Mr. Snicket helpfully translates. Now, I am only a passing polyglot, but I seem to recognize many of the phrases Sunny utters as appropriated from other tongues or being allusions to people, places or mythologies. We trust that future academics studying the works of Mr. Snicket will provide a helpful concordance.

In each book, the children escape only to find themselves in a different desperate circumstance. There is indeed a sameness to the situations, but the variations on a theme are like those in any genre writing -- who would read a murder mystery if no one was in fact murdered, or read a science-fiction novel if the Nurgats of Zimron hadn't mastered the Phleem blaster?

In Book the Second, The Reptile Room, our three plucky young people find themselves with their kindly Uncle Monty, a herpetologist; because he is nice to them, one knows he cannot last. In Book the Third, The Wide Window, their strict grammarian Aunt Josephine encodes the news of her kidnapping in a note the children must decipher. The Miserable Mill (Book the Fourth) causes us to question child-labor laws.

Not only does The Austere Academy induce chills in any for whom school is not an unalloyed happy memory, it introduces us to the Quagmire triplets, Isadora and Duncan (their third sibling, Quigley, like the Baudelaire parents, was killed in a mysterious fire). The Quagmires try to aid the Baudelaires, but only ensure their own trials in the books ahead.

And so it goes, as The Ersatz Elevator takes on the social-climbing set, The Vile Village (Book the Seventh) shoots at the newspaper industry, and the theme of The Hostile Hospital is self-evident. In each case, Count Olaf is disguised in some fashion, and in each case the Baudelaires cannot seem to get the truth of their plight across.

As all of this proceeds, it begins to dawn on the reader that Mr. Snicket is more than an interested party chronicling sad stories. Slowly, we discern a subtle intrusion of the writer on the action. We begin to understand that Mr. Snicket is part of this story, that Count Olaf is known to him and, more ominously, that Beatrice was very well known to the Count.

Fortunately, for guidance we have the new volume of Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography (HarperCollins, $11.99) to rely upon. For me, it was most important to discover that Mr. Snicket began his career as a theater critic. Based on his writing, it is clear we lost a master. In his list of things about theater he cannot understand, he writes that "I do not understand why some people attend the theatre when it appears they would prefer to be unwrapping candy or talking on the phone," and he wonders "why a play about singing cats was allowed to be performed at all."

We begin to unravel the mysterious society -- called V.F.D. -- alluded to after Book the Fifth, and how it relates to the Baudelaire story and to Mr. Snicket himself. The list of authors whose books harbor clues to the basis of the V.F.D. society and its aim (motto: "The world is quiet here") is revealed and revealing: Roald Dahl (dark and humorous), the Brothers Grimm (dark and serious), E.B. White (wistful and humorous), Laura Ingalls Wilder (wistful, medium-hued), J.D. Salinger (too famous to characterize).

We trace the early Snicket years, from the folk song "The Little Snicket Lad," preserved at the Scriabin Institute for Accuracy in Music, through Mr. Snicket's falling out with the Daily Punctilio, the newspaper from which he was fired because he dared to criticize an actress. ("That's not a critic's job," writes angry editor Eleanora Poe after giving him the boot.) A helpful index guides us through the book: For example, from "noble causes" you are sent to "necessary evils," where you are told to see "moral uncertainty" and then referred to "villainy," where you are off to "conspiracies," which finally takes you to "overall feelings of doom." Here, you are told that you should check "doom, overall feelings of," in which you discover most helpfully that this covers pages ix-211. This replicates my experience with the Yellow Pages as well.

Finally, and most helpful of all, is the inverse to the book jacket, which the reader is urged to use to disguise the "extremely dangerous" and "objectionable" autobiography he is reading. It reveals the cover of another book, one which all children and adults should be reading and which would make them all feel ever so much better. It purports to be Volume I of a new series, The Luckiest Kids in the World by Loney M. Setnick. As the jacket blurb says, "Reading is fun, cool, and educational, and this book is one of the most exciting ever! It's about The Luckiest Kids in the World, Laurie, Larry and Lil' Linda Lotsaluck and their sidesplitting adventures in 'The Pony Party.' Everybody loves ponies! Everybody loves parties! And that means everybody -- absolutely everybody -- loves pony parties."

I should like someday to contact Mr. Snicket's representative in all matters literary, legal and social, one Mr. Daniel Handler, to see if he also represents the works of Ms. Setnick. Also to ask him to congratulate Mr. Snicket on avoiding the temptation to make each book 33 percent larger than the previous one (some well-known series will need Sumo wrestlers to carry the overgrown sequels). And finally, to ask him to send Book the Ninth soon -- while my son and I despair over the darkness of the tales, they are very like the spiciest dip at the party: All the guests complain, but it's the first to be eaten, and everyone wants the recipe!

Robert Aubry Davis, of WETA and XM Satellite Radio, heard his son laughing so suspiciously on reading Lemony Snicket's works that he was compelled to sample these "unpleasant tales" for himself.