So I’m late to the party when it comes to A Series of Unfortunate Events. I just read the first three this month, because it seemed an Octobery thing to do. (Also because it’s Monday the 13th, the date Garfield the Cat fears most.) But as both a bibliophile and a denizen of pop culture, I could hardly be unaware of Lemony Snicket and his bestselling, quasi-tragic novels.
I remember seeing his books displayed at Borders (remember Borders?) when they first came out. Even though I was a college student on a budget at the time, my hand strayed to the display. Because nothing is more enticing than this ingenious marketing angle:
Don’t read this book.
This warning has worked its reverse-psychology magic on me ever since I was 5 and read the Sesame Street classic picture book, The Monster at the End of This Book. In it, pictures of Grover throw ropes, chains, and locks across the right-hand page, in an effort to stop you from turning the page. Grover has heard there’s a monster at the end of the book. He begs and scolds the young reader. The tension mounts with every turn of the page until we’re finally there, and we realize the monster at the end of the book is…
(insert eerie organ music here)
This book proves at least one of the following:
Children are disobedient.
Children are sadists.
Children like scary stories.
Let’s ponder this.
If by chance you, like me, missed the Unfortunate Boat (a phrase which here means “the scoop about A Series of Unfortunate Events,” not the Titanic), here’s the general idea:
When the rich Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, lose their parents in a house fire, they are bounced from eccentric guardian to eccentric guardian. All the while, Count Olaf, their greedy relative, pursues them in hopes of controlling the Baudelaire fortune. Olaf appears in a variety of unconvincing disguises, which the children always see through while their would-be protectors do not. This puts the children in many dangerous and nail-biting situations, and proves fatal to more than one character.
Lemony Snicket fairly warns the reader about the tragedies his characters will encounter. Even so, I remember the debate when the books first came out. Was it right to have such death or darkness in YA novels?
Considering the YA books that have come out in the 15 years since the publication of Book 1 (A Bad Beginning), the concern is almost quaint. Why, we’ve had vampires, zombies, and dystopias top the market. The Hunger Games makes A Series of Unfortunate Events look like training wheels. Mind, the audience for Unfortunate Events is younger. But overall, the YA market as a whole has gotten darker.
Whereas humor rarely appears in the vampire or dystopian genres, it’s a key element in A Series of Unfortunate Events. The author delights in wordplay, to the extent that he defines vocabulary for humorous purposes. “A word which here means…” is one of his favorite phrases, followed by some slightly snarky interpretation of events. Sunny, the baby in the family, blabs baby talk which Snicket translates into perfectly coherent and often self-confident phrases. Indeed, I think the movie version of Sunny loses something because we don’t have Snicket’s translations. And Lemony Snicket, as evidenced by his own name, loves inventing names. Take Book 3, The Wide Window, where we have a Lachrymose Lake and a Damocles Dock. Lachrymose has to do with tears and the Sword of Damocles is an ancient story about impending doom that hangs over people in possession of power or wealth.
One reason I suspect the series was so successful is that the Baudelaire children have to be their own heroes, because the adults around them are batty. In fact, the series is almost a commentary on how children function in a crazy, dangerous adult world. Like the Baudelaire orphans, all children at times are frustrated by the rules that bind them. How can kids fight a legal system that punts them to guardians they may or may not like? How can they protest against chores, grammar lessons, cold cucumber soup, and being constantly told not to interrupt even while danger looms? Two of the most terrifying things in a young life are losing one’s parents and not being believed, and this series plays upon both fears. The adults around the Baudelaires, well-meaning or not, prove incompetent. The self-reliant, sane orphans prove to be the most mature of the cast of memorable characters.
There is a bit of a Titanic appeal to the books. We know the boat sinks. Now we have to watch to see how it happens, and if the characters we care about survive.
Tragic, humorous stories about children are nothing new. Fans of Edward Gorey should love this series. And the gothic tone of children in peril dates back even further, to some of the first fairy tales. Count Olaf is the Big Bad Wolf indeed.
Question of the day:
A famous storyteller once claimed that children actually enjoy frightening tales because they like being scared. Agree or disagree?