And now, Scary-Crayon reviews…
Ever since I worked in a bookstore and saw firsthand how rabid people can become over books, I’ve wondered just what it is that makes some books and series more popular than others. I’ve read a number of engaging books that failed not only to garner the widespread attention and multiple films that some authors’ works manage to achieve, but even to stay in print beyond a first run. Meanwhile, completely horrible stuff like Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight novels (I literally could not get more than two pages into the first title of the series) attracts legions of fans and gets top-grossing films. Sure, those films are also awful (except New Moon and Breaking Dawn Part 1, which are among the best movies ever made), but now Kristen Stewart is the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.
Even among the books that do manage to transcend the printed page in the media world, few rise to the level of popularity that the Twilight novels — and, most notably, J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter books — enjoy in their original format. For instance, Charlaine Harris‘s Southern Vampire Mysteries and Jeff Lindsay‘s Dexter books have gotten popular television adaptations in “True Blood” and “Dexter” (respectively), but most people probably don’t even know that those shows are based on books. And while more people are aware of the print origins of “Game of Thrones” — if only because of the show’s subject matter — I’d bet that far fewer could name the author responsible for those tomes.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (the books are actually written by Daniel Handler) is among these less successful series. Despite having enough fans to warrant a 13-book series, spinoff titles, and a major motion picture, the books have clearly failed to generate a level of excitement comparable to the attention given to the Twilight and Harry Potter novels. I still don’t know why readers find those books in particular to be so engaging. However, after reading The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window — the first three books in ASUE — I thought the series was deserving of similar approbation from the masses.
Then I read the others.
Mind you, ASUE isn’t completely horrible. There’s a lot that it does right, and I can understand why some committed readers would be willing to stick with the series to the bitter end. (I was, even though I fully recognized the books’ flaws and did more groaning than smiling as I made my way through the final titles.) For one, the main characters are fairly likeable — or are at least somewhat interesting — such that the reader connects with them and/or wants to see how their story will end. In the case of the Baudelaire orphans, the reader’s sympathies are with them from the start: at the very beginning of The Bad Beginning, a fire destroys their home and kills their parents. Moreover, as the name of the series suggests, this is only the first of the unfortunate events that plague the Baudelaires throughout the novels.
And yet, whereas readers might still have been sympathetic if the Baudelaire children had fallen into despair and responded to their troubles with endless weeping, we admire them because of the strength and courage with which they face their hardships. In addition to perseverance, each Baudelaire has a particular skill he/she applies in appropriate situations. As with video games, this sly method of characterization keeps things simple for the intended audience (children) while imbuing each orphan with some measure of personality. Violet, the oldest Baudelaire sibling (she’s 14 when the series starts), is a brilliant inventor, which enables her to invent various useful and life-saving contraptions on the fly. Klaus, who is two years younger than Violet, is an avowed bookworm and retains the bulk of what he reads — making him an effective researcher and source of vital information. And Sunny Baudelaire is a baby. She bites things. Laugh if you will, but it’s a talent that serves the children well — especially given that the Baudelaires are perpetually pursued by villains whose progress can be slowed by the painful impression of four sharp teeth. At one point in the series, Sunny even climbs the elevator shaft of a 60-plus-floor building using only her teeth (she somehow wiggles them in a manner that allows her to inch up the wall one tooth at a time). In the later books, as she grows into a young girl, Sunny’s biting talent is replaced by an ability to cook. It’s a much less useful talent, in my opinion — it mostly just allows the Baudelaires to subsist on mock gourmet dishes, as if fine dining is really important when one is being pursued by hook-handed fiends and harpoon-wielding fashionistas — but even it saves the day on one or two occasions.
There are many other compelling characters who appear throughout the series (as well as even more who are kinda lame), but special attention must also be given to the series’ principal villain: Count Olaf. The Baudelaires first encounter him when he becomes their guardian following their parents’ demise — a role, we learn, he has only taken in order to acquire the enormous Baudelaire fortune. When he’s informed that only the children will have access to the funds — and only once Violet turns 18 — Olaf begins attempting to acquire the money through various nefarious schemes. Mostly, his plans consist of increasingly convoluted plots to kidnap the children with the goal of later using them to gain the fortune. Count Olaf fancies himself a celebrated actor, and his plans almost always involve unconvincing disguises.
Now, such a character could have come across as completely ridiculous and incompetent. Admittedly, at times, he does. Yet Count Olaf’s track record and demonstrated crimes make him a largely credible threat: he not only murders a number of supporting characters in the book (including several of the Baudelaires’ new guardians), but also deliberately attempts to kill one or more of the Baudelaires on multiple occasions (after all, he reasons, he only needs one of them alive to gain the fortune). As a result, even when the Baudelaires unmask him and he flees the scene like Team Rocket blasting off again, the reader never questions the children’s dread of Olaf. He always returns, and — even though the Baudelaires are consistently able to thwart his plans — the body count always rises when he does. Moreover, as the series progresses, more of Olaf’s history is hinted at in the character’s own remarks and the author’s anecdotes. By the end of the series, the cruel and murderous Count Olaf even becomes a sympathetic character in his own right.
In addition to featuring intriguing characters, ASUE does a great job of raising questions to keep the reader interested. As the books progress, the Baudelaires learn that their parents’ deaths were not due to a random accident — and that Count Olaf’s presence in their lives is not simply the result of their bad luck. They meet other orphans who lost their parents in mysterious fires, learn about the lives their parents led, and ultimately discover a world of conspiracies and secret organizations. These details are divulged piecemeal — in lines of dialogue here, in clues the characters uncover there, and through pointless asides made by the author that sometimes turn out not to be pointless at all. These tidbits are also delivered in such a way that encourages the reader to speculate about their meanings, which makes the series’ various discoveries and revelations that much more satisfying when the reader finally encounters them.
Unfortunately, by the end of the 13-book series, the vast majority of questions remain unanswered. Certain threads of the story are never resolved. And, most problematic, it takes the series 13 books to reach this non-ending — which would be fine if there were enough story in ASUE to justify 13 books. There isn’t. If you’ve heard about the film adaptation, you might have wondered why the filmmakers chose to compress the first three books into a single film. I certainly did. However, having read the books, I not only think the decision was well made, but that they probably could have made the movie 15 minutes longer and squeezed the fourth into it as well. In each book, you get somewhere between 30-60 pages of actual story: everything else is filler. Some of it is entertaining and interesting filler, mind you — I’m reminded of how one of my anthropology professors in college would stop in the middle of lectures to tell jokes tangentially connected (if at all) to something he’d just said. And as Lemony Snicket is ultimately revealed to be a character in the series, some of his seemingly pointless anecdotes serve as backstory (though in the earlier novels, before this revelation is made, the distinction might be lost on the reader). In the earlier books, the author’s asides are actually among the more charming features of the writing; even in the later titles, some of them are delightful to read. For instance, at one point in The Grim Grotto (Book 11; p.91-92), Snicket writes:
When you are invited to dine, particularly with people you do not know very well, it always helps to have a conversational opener, a phrase which here means “an interesting sentence to say out loud in order to get people talking.” Although lately it has become more and more difficult to attend dinner parties without the evening ending in gunfire or tapioca, I keep a list of good and bad conversational openers in my commonplace book in order to avoid awkward pauses at the dinner table. “Who would like to see an assortment of photographs taken while I was on vacation?” for instance, is a very poor conversational opener because it is likely to make your fellow diners shudder instead of talk, whereas good conversational openers are sentences such as “What would drive a man to commit arson?,” “Why do so many stories of true love end in tragedy and despair?,” and “Madame diLustro, I believe I’ve discovered your true identity!,” all of which are likely to provoke discussions, arguments, and accusations, thus making the dinner party much more entertaining.
This aside doesn’t add anything to the story — Madame diLustro is not a character in the books that I recall (though, if Snicket actually had occasion to use that conversational opener, she could have been Count Olaf for all we know) — it’s an amusing bit that got a chuckle out of me. Nearly all of the “pointless” asides in the earlier books are like that: they’re just fun reading, and they probably help to keep the series from being too dark for young readers (and perhaps older readers too). But as the series goes on, the books in ASUE get longer and longer — I suspect because publishers have become convinced that older readers are disinclined to read shorter books (is there a growing impression that books under 200 pages must be for kids?) and, in this case, sought to publish lengthier books in keeping with the increasing ages of those readers who started with Book 1. But the stories themselves don’t become any more complex, or at least not so complex as to warrant 300-plus-page novels. As such, the lengthening of the books is primarily accomplished by Snicket’s asides and anecdotes and descriptions. And that leads to numerous passages like these —
The water cycle consists of three phenomena — evaporation, precipitation, and collection — which are the three phenomena that make up what is known as “the water cycle.” Evaporation, the first of these phenomena, is the process of water turning into vapor and eventually forming clouds, such as those found in cloudy skies, or on cloudy days, or even cloudy nights. These clouds are formed by a phenomenon known as “evaporation,” which is the first of three phenomena that make up the water cycle. Evaporation , the first of these three, is simply a term for a process by which water turns into vapor and eventually forms clouds. Clouds can be recognized by their appearance, usually on cloudy days or nights, when they can be seen in cloudy skies. The name for the process by which clouds are formed — by water, which turns into vapor and becomes part of the formation known as “clouds” — is “evaporation,” the first phenomenon in the three phenomena that make up the cycle of water, otherwise known as “the water cycle,” and surely you must be asleep by now and so can be spared the horrifying details of the Baudelaires’ journey. (The Grim Grotto, p.124-125)
The water cycle consists of three phenomena: evaporation, precipitation, and collection, three phenomena known collectively as the three phenomena of what is referred to as “the water cycle.” The second of these phenomena — precipitation — is the process by which vapor turns into water and falls as rain, something you might notice during a rainfall or by going outdoors on a rainy morning, afternoon, evening, or night. This falling water you notice is known as “rain,” which is the result of the phenomenon of precipitation, one of the three phenomena that comprise the water cycle. Of these three phenomena, precipitation is regarded as the second one, particularly if a list of the three phenomena places precipitation in the middle, or second, spot on the list. “Precipitation” is quite simply a term for the transformation of vapor into water, which then falls as rain — something you might encounter if you were to step outside during a rainstorm. Rain consists of water, which was formerly vapor but underwent the process known as “precipitation,” one of the three phenomena in the water cycle, and by now this tedious description must have put you back to sleep, so you may avoid the gruesome details of my account of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire as they made their way through the Gorgonian Grotto back to the Queequeg. (The Grim Grotto, p.169-170)
— which are just fucking annoying. (Later in the book, Snicket proceeds to discuss collection, the third phenomenon in the water cycle, in the same irritating manner.) Other methods of padding featured in the books include lists of objects that sometimes span as many as four pages and frequent recaps of events that have happened in the story up to that point. Admittedly, while these recaps often span multiple pages as well, I see how they could be useful to a reader who read each book when it came out and, as such, had forgotten much of what happened in the earlier titles by the time he/she reached the latter books in the series. (I didn’t start reading ASUE until the series had been released in full, and I read the last 10 books within the span of a couple of months — so those events were pretty fresh in my mind.) On the other hand, while a quick recap of the series thus far is certainly an appropriate way to begin each new book, there’s no need to recap largely pointless events or occurrences from the earlier books on multiple occasions in the same title. Sometimes Snicket even goes so far as to combine these recaps with annoying digressions in order to achieve maximum padding. For instance:
The phrase “in the dark,” as I’m sure you know, can refer not only to one’s shadowy surroundings, but also to the shadowy secrets of which one might be unaware. Every day, the sun goes down over all these secrets, and so everyone is in the dark one way or another. If you are sunbathing in a park, for instance, but you do not know that a locked cabinet is buried fifty feet beneath your blanket, then you are in the dark even though you are not actually in the dark, whereas if you are on a midnight hike, knowing full well that several ballerinas are following close behind you, then you are not in the dark even if you are in fact in the dark. Of course, it is quite possible to be in the dark in the dark, as well as to be not in the dark not in the dark, but there are so many secrets in the world that it is likely that you are always in the dark about one thing or another, whether you are in the dark in the dark or in the dark not in the dark, although the sun can go down so quickly that you may be in the dark about being in the dark in the dark, only to look around and find yourself no longer in the dark about being in the dark in the dark, but in the dark in the dark nonetheless, not only because of the dark, but because of the ballerinas in the dark, who are not in the dark about the dark, but also not in the dark about the locked cabinet, and you may be in the dark about the ballerinas digging up the locked cabinet in the dark, even though you are no longer in the dark about being in the dark, and so you are in fact in the dark about being in the dark, and so you may fall into the hole that the ballerinas have dug, which is dark, in the dark, and in the park.
The Baudelaire orphans, of course, had been in the dark many times before they made their way in the dark over the brae to the far side of the island, where the arboretum guarded its many, many secrets. There was the darkness of Count Olaf’s gloomy house, and the darkness of the movie theater where Uncle Monty had taken them to see a wonderful film called Zombies in the Snow. There were the dark clouds of Hurricane Herman as it roared across Lake Lachrymose, and the darkness of the Finite Forest as a train had taken the children to work at Lucky Smells Lumbermill. There were the dark nights the children spent at Prufrock Preparatory School, participating in Special Orphan Running Exercises, and the dark climbs up the elevator shaft of 667 Dark Avenue. There was the dark jail cell in which the children spent some time while living in the Village of Fowl Devotees, and the dark trunk of Count Olaf’s car, which had carried them from Heimlich Hospital to the hinterlands, where the dark tents of the Caligari Carnival awaited them. There was the dark put they had built high in the Mortmain Mountains, and the dark hatch they had climbed through in order to board the Queequeg, and the dark lobby of the Hotel Denouement, where they thought their dark days might be over. There were the dark eyes of Count Olaf and his associates, and the dark notebooks of the Quagmire triplets, and all of the dark passageways the children had discovered, that led to the Baudelaire mansion, and out of the Library of Records, and up to the V.F.D. Headquarters, and to the dark, dark depths of the sea, and all the dark passageways they hadn’t discovered, where other people traveled on equally desperate errands. But most of all, the Baudelaire orphans had been in the dark about their own sad history. They did not understand how Count Olaf had entered their lives, or how he had managed to remain there, hatching scheme after scheme without anyone stopping him. They did not understand V.F.D., even when they had joined the organization themselves, or how the organization, with all of its codes, errands, and volunteers, had failed to defeat the wicked people who seemed to triumph again and again, leaving each safe place in ruins. And they did not understand how they could lose their parents and their home in a fire, and how this enormous injustice, this bad beginning to their sad history, was followed only by another injustice, and another, and another. The Baudelaire orphans did not understand… [Yes, this is followed by even more recapping.] (The End, p.189-193)
Honestly, by the tenth book, the series seems less like an actual book series and more like a prolonged exercise in putting words on pages — almost as if the author wanted to see how many of my National Novel Writing Month techniques he could use in a single book and escape meetings with his editor with his person and bloated page count intact.
And of course, in addition to the flaws of the writing, some of the stuff that happens in the books is just dumb. Throughout the series, most of the adults the Baudelaires meet are as intelligent as your average South Park townie — such that, when Count Olaf shows up in one of his ridiculous disguises, the adults fail to recognize him even though the Baudelaires aren’t fooled for a moment. For instance, Count Olaf shows up in one of the books wearing a turban in order to hide his unibrow, one of his most notable physical features. However, instead of taking the Baudelaires’ word that this man is in fact Olaf, the adults simply assume that the children are mistaken: this man can’t be Count Olaf because his features don’t include a unibrow! (And because Olaf says he’s wearing the turban for religious reasons, the adults refuse to ask him to remove it.) This kind of thing is annoying enough, but at least it’s mildly plausible — after all, adults probably do ignore kids far more than they should. However, there are also things like the situation in the fourth book, The Miserable Mill. In this title, the Baudelaires find themselves working at and living in the dormitories of the Lucky Smells Lumbermill… where the workers are paid in coupons instead of money. As such, they can’t afford to take advantage of the coupon discounts because they have no money to buy the discounted items. And while it arguably makes some sense that adults would ignore the warnings of children, it makes no sense whatsoever that adults in modern times would continue to work for employers who don’t actually pay them.
The Baudelaire orphans are also prone to credibility-stretching lapses in judgment. Another frustrating occurrence that takes place throughout the titles is that the Baudelaires will uncover some terribly important piece of information, or some supporting character will find some crucial evidence that the Baudelaires need to know. Yet instead of insisting on sharing that information immediately or listening to that information at once, as the case may be, the Baudelaires will actively delay the act until later. In each instance, the opportunity is lost: either the person whom the Baudelaires need to inform ends up dead before their next encounter or the individual with important knowledge for the Baudelaires ends up dead or kidnapped. You’d think the Baudelaires would catch on after the first time this happened, but they continue to hold their tongues or close their ears at key moments right up until the end of the series. While this does have the effect of extending the various mysteries and keeping certain secrets preserved as the novels progress, it is also very, very irritating.
If this all makes A Series of Unfortunate Events sound like most unfortunate reading, good. I definitely don’t recommend reading the entire series, and I can’t say that I’m completely happy with my dogged decision to slog through all 13 books myself. (I’ve determined that I’m not going to read any of the spinoff material or the prequel series beginning later this year, but I’m almost sure curiosity will ultimately get the better of me.) Still, it’s not as if the books are completely bad. Even some of the later titles are worthwhile — I really enjoyed the ninth book, The Carnivorous Carnival, though that could simply be because I love a carnival setting and sideshow freaks are always awesome characters. (One of us, one of us…) Even when the books are at their most annoying (the last three books in the series), there are some shining passages among the abundant padding. And I genuinely recommend the first three books — unless, having read them, you’ll be unable to rest until you’ve finished the entire series. If you’re one of those obsessive souls (believe me, I can relate), skip the books entirely and just rent the movie.