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Daniel Handler

Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography

Literati, beware: Lemony Snicket is addictive Once you succumb, there's no going back

Kelly Patterson
Ottawa Citizen

Dear Reader,

If you are looking for some cheery tales to share with your children, perhaps during idyllic afternoons by the beach this summer, throw this article away immediately. For it is my unlucky duty here to detail for you the inexplicably, perhaps dangerously, popular phenomenon of the Baudelaire orphans and their shadowy chronicler, Lemony Snicket.

I cannot stress the wretchedness of these lamentable tales enough: Despite repeated warnings from Mr. Snicket himself, young and old alike are flocking to these mock-Gothic tales in alarming numbers, and in May, five of the top 10 spots on the New York Times bestseller list for children were occupied by Lemony Snicket's works, appropriately billed as A Series of Unfortunate Events. Indeed, The Bad Beginning placed second, closing in on the latest Harry Potter, as reviewers have long warned the Baudelaire tales would.

In all, these pathetic and ghastly tales have sold four million copies so far, and -- I shudder at the thought -- Nickleodeon has snapped up the film and television rights. Already the elusive Mr. Snicket is all over the Web -- 10,800 sites come up when you plug in his name.

Yes, this summer the Baudelaires seem certain to dethrone that other orphan wunderkind, Harry Potter. Move over, Voldemort -- the evil Count Olaf is taking over as fiend du jour.

For those of you who have had the good sense to avoid these books so far, here is the gist: The evil Count Olaf will stop at nothing to get his hands on the fortune left to 14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus and infant Sunny Baudelaire by their parents, who have been killed in a suspicious fire. Consigned by the bumbling Mr. Poe, executor of the will, to the care of a series of incompetent guardians, the orphans must outwit Count Olaf themselves, relying on the gifts each one has been blessed with: Violet is a great inventor, Klaus, a prodigious reader, and Sunny has razor-sharp teeth.

The result is a series of epic struggles in which the orphans use their larger-than-life wits (and teeth) to escape the clutches of the devious villain. In The Bad Beginning, for example, the children encounter "a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast." In The Wide Window, they struggle against "cold cucumber soup, hungry leeches, a horrible villain and a doll called (shudder!) Pretty Penny." And so on.

And what, you will ask, is the attraction of these unlikely tales? Is schadenfreud -- a word here which means delight in the misery of others -- so rampant nowadays that Victorian melodrama is undergoing some kind of perverse revival? After all, Harry Potter is also a kind of Goth/fantasy fusion. Perhaps, in this bewildering world, a little straightforward Victorian villainy is what we crave: The Baudelaires may become entangled in Count Olaf's fiendishly elaborate plots, but it is abundantly clear who are the good guys and who are the bad.

At the same time, we know how absurd that simplicity is -- something that is gleefully acknowledged in these stories, which abound with self-conscious irony. And there we have it: That is how Lemony Snicket lures adult readers (you know who you are) into his twisted and lugubrious world, ensuring these woeful tales soar up the bestseller lists, just like the adult-friendly Harry Potter tomes.

How to resist the long asides that deliciously delay the denouement of every cliff-hanger? How to resist the comically verbose prose, complete with long-winded definitions that may or may not be relevant to the plot? Or the tantalizing digressions where Lemony Snicket describes how he penned such-and-such a passage while hiding from the police behind a church altar?

And what parent can resist promoting a book that sets out to teach kids words such as "inordinate," complete with definitions and multiple examples of usage, slipped into the twists and turns of an exciting plot and imbedded in various jokes? To say nothing of the fact that, when the child prodigies are up against a wall, they inevitably turn to ... the library, researching their way out of trouble.

But it is not only children and their parents who are falling prey to the insidious appeal of these books. Literati, beware: Each book is bristling with comic literary allusions, starting with the Baudelaires and Mr. Poe, named for two literary greats revered by Goths. In The Austere Academy, the children attend Prufrock Preparatory School (a la T.S. Eliot), and in The Miserable Mill Klaus gets his glasses repaired by Dr. Georgina Orwell. In The Ersatz Elevator, Jerome and Esme Squalor (whose stiletto heels are made of real daggers) are borrowed from Salinger, and there are even references to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and Dante's Beatrice.

Yes, these books are not just melodrama, they are postmodern melodrama -- a beguiling formula that will appeal to almost any reader, from children as young as six to full-grown, lit-loving dweebs. Adventure, good-vs.-evil, big words, in-jokes, mysteries -- the Baudelaire saga has them all.

Of course, there is yet one hope for those who wish to resist the devilish appeal of the Baudelaire saga: You can go too far with postmodern in-jokes. The latest in the series was trashed by some for indulging in too-long digressions and long-winded asides. And those poor souls who have been eagerly anticipating the latest on Lemony himself will be disappointed with Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography (HarperCollins, $17.99), a chaotic mish-mash of half-scribbled notes, unidentified photos, letters, even snippets of songs that take the mystery that shrouds the "author" (in reality a San Francisco writer named Daniel Handler) to such extremes it becomes boring.

But it is my sad duty to inform you that the Baudelaire saga is not going to lose its momentum over one paltry spinoff book. There are five books to go in the 13-part series, and thousands more readers -- adults and children alike -- will succumb to the lure of these miserable tales.