Never assassinate Archduke Ferdinand

Wednesday, 5 January 2005 — 5:07pm | Literature

And never, under any circumstances, let the Virginian Wolfsnake near a typewriter.

This barely scratches the surface of what a fortunate reader can learn from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Granted, I am only through The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window and the composite film adaptation of the three directed by Brad Silberling and screenwritten by Robert Gordon. At this stage the series is still of a detached and serial nature with only loose ties between successive volumes, but I hear the story arc undergoes some fleshing out later on. At the end of The Wide Window, there is a subtle development that provides a clue to the antecedent mystery that sets off the series, that being the Baudelaire fire.

Even without any continuous narrative yellow brick road that works its way back to the circumstances of the initial incident, in the first three books, the narrator Snicket – presented as a shadowy eccentric in his own right – tells the story in a way that reveals it to be more of a stylistic exercise than anything else. In an earlier post I briefly discussed performative speech acts in The Bad Beginning; in Reptile and Window, the author continues to weave studies of language into the prose. Lemony Snicket’s trademarks are an expert grasp of dissecting English idiom and commendable skill at wrangling “apposition” – which here means the method of defining something by the adjacent placement of a description, sometimes qualified by the phrase “which here means” – in order to make a point. As in the example concerning performatives, the genius of the books lies in Snicket’s ability to take something remarkably complex about the conventions of rhetoric and encapsulate it in a dazzlingly simple, yet lossless explanation.

There is also something to be said for how Snicket harnesses the physical aspect of turning a page in order to create an effect, which is something that you see very often in comics but rarely in prose, where differing editions leave the way the words fit on the page to happy chance. Here, I refer to what happens when the reader is on page 153 of The Reptile Room, and the immediate revelation upon turning the page. You’ll know it when you see it.

I’m beginning to think that the very presence of A Series of Unfortunate Events in the Children’s sections of bookstores – and the fact that children are still its core audience, in spite of its devoted adult following – is the greatest joke the author has played.

On the surface, these are short and easy reads of the same single-digit age level you would expect from, say, Roald Dahl. For those new to the English language, there is no question that there is hardly a more entertaining way to pick up its idiomatic quirks, but that attests to the ease of the reading level. Plotwise, file them under “not that special” and wait on the docks for the July shipment of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. These are simple serial adventures, and (after three volumes, anyhow) they do not incite speculation as to what will happen next, though it’s a given that each successive adventure will be characteristically miserable.

My theory – and one that is hardly the revelation of anything obscure, but a directional arrow towards something hidden in plain sight – is that this series is not intended for children at all. As with any and all claims pertaining to a book’s target audience, this is an inclusive property and not a limitation, but by “target audience” I here mean those who will get the most out of the experience; in other words, language nerds.

Dismissing Lemony Snicket as mere children’s fiction and a language acquisition tool is akin to dismissing the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams as writers of sci-fi. It’s clearly a satirical attack on the happy-go-lucky conventions of standard children’s writing and its socializing mechanisms. He marks the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf as an insipid fable, the moral of which ought to be “Never live somewhere where wolves are running around loose.” He dangles babies from towers and kills off their guardians in a matter-of-factly way. He goes out of his way to remind us time and again that these stories are not intended to entertain small children, but in the fog of satire, we don’t take him seriously, and actually derive entertainment from that very claim.

The reading level is accessible to nine-year-olds, but the subtextual criticism elevates the books to being for the literate and clever of all ages. These are not children’s books, and it should be blindingly obvious that Snicket’s appositive definitions are rarely, if ever, instructively literal.

Those who miss the point in their search for literary entertainment (or worse, something morally virtuous) will no doubt find the series to be about as useful as a chocolate teapot. The books are formulaic yarns, and the prose has an elegant air of simplicity, but most of the reading is between the lines. If anything, that rare mastery of short words indicates a mastery of the language, and here it can be found in spades.

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