Wednesday, March 27, 2002

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I finished reading The Wide Window, the third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Snicket's books often take up a few slots on the New York Times Children's Bestseller List. When I read the first one, The Bad Beginning, I must admit I didn't really see what all the fuss was about. It was okay, but... I missed the second one altogether and picked up the third one to give the guy a second chance. It was worth my effort. The Unfortunate Events books are takeoffs of Nineteenth Century novels in which nice children from good homes fall on hard times. The three young Baudelaires are always falling on hard times. And that's the joke. One disaster after another befalls them. The only adult they can turn to is the family solicitor, Mr. Poe (as in Edgar Allen?), who is honest and all that but doesn't really care for kids and is always hopeful that the next living situation he finds for the orphans will be the one that takes them off his hands.

The unknown narrator, who is relating the sad history of the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans, injects his two cents into the story quite often, which is either annoying or brilliant, depending on your point of view. My own feeling is that it can go both ways. A page long aside on the meaning of the expression "hook, line, and sinker" got old fast. On the other hand a page long paragraph describing the children's feelings while watching their aunt's home slide down a hill into a lake includes the lines "I have seen many amazing things in my long and troubled life history...I have seen a woman I loved picked up by an enormous eagle and flown to its high mountain nest." Works for me.

Actually, it is this unknown narrator--presumably Lemony Snicket, whoever he is supposed to be--who gives the stories their unique edge. Though he is not a character in the story, it's his voice we listen for and his thoughts we wait for. He stops the story every now and then to define a word, definitions that are sometimes only vaguely accurate but fit the situation. He interprets for the youngest Baudelaire child, who is still an infant and can't speak. He keeps pointing out to the readers that the events he's describing are sad and tragic. Unfortunate, indeed.

But the Baudelaires survive and move on, using their own wits to save themselves--even though, as Mr. Snicket points out, children are not supposed to be left "all by themselves in great danger." The books have clever mind games for those who like that kind of thing, and dark humor for another sort of reader. And perhaps former English majors who have a little knowledge of Nineteenth Century literature will get a kick out of some of the goings on.

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