By Grace Crawford

Images courtesy of HarperCollins, Nickelodeon Movies, Scott Rudin Productions, Paramount Pictures, and DreamWorks Pictures

I would say I have a problem, but it’s only a problem if it’s negatively impacting my life. And since my life is currently awesome, there must not be a problem. Ergo, spending my free time re-reading A Series of Unfortunate Events instead of doing my homework isn’t a problem.

It all started when my teachers for my prose-publishing class assigned us an essay on an author who influenced our own writing. I hemmed and hawed—a phrase which here means “deliberated for about five minutes before forgetting, allowed several days go by, and finally came back to it because I was bored in class and wanted to do literally anything else”—and swung back and forth between Rowling, Lewis, and Carroll. None of them felt quite right, though, and it was then that I hit upon the obvious answer: Lemony Snicket, idiot.

I then borrowed the entire series from my sister-in-law and proceeded to peruse the first six books. But due to time constraints (because it was the day before I had to hand in my essay and give an oral presentation even though I have performance anxiety and apparently the little blue pill is for an entirely different kind of performance anxiety, and I really don’t know where I was going with this sentence but I wanted to make a joke about “oral presentations”) I had to skim the remaining seven novellas. Which is fine, because I read them so many times when I was a child that the stories are deeply ingrained in my mind.

The presentation went swimmingly—a phrase which here means “happened without any mishaps involving fainting, projectile vomiting, or interference from a group of feral equines”—and I handed in my essay without any trouble. And that was that… or so I thought. Once I start a series, I have to finish. And these books are so engaging that I absolutely must finish at all costs.

“But wait,” you don’t actually say, because, like Lemony Snicket, you are probably not even real, “I’m a reasonably clever person.” (You probably aren’t.) “And I can put two and two together.” (Congratulations, you’ve learnt your maths.) “You just wrote an essay on the series and now you’re writing a review on it. Are you just copying the essay here because you’re lazy and it’s late at night and because you want to stuff Thom’s Die Hard retrospective down his stupid throat because his skills are inferior to yours?” (No, because I’m working from the rough outline I used from my oral presentation, plus about a billion things I wish I’d thought to include and I thought this was a good solution to get my brain to shut up about the clever things I didn’t say, and yes, it’s late, but I’m used to working late even though tomorrow is just going to suck, and yes, Thom can absolutely swallow that drivel of his. Also, shut up.)

“Dammit, I’m a writer, not a babysitter.”

Now, I won’t lie to you. (I mean, I lie to you all the time, but not about this. Probably.) Lemony Snicket, a fictional character who allegedly wrote thirteen books plus Chapter Fourteen plus the Beatrice Letters plus I don’t even know what all else, is an invention of American writer Daniel Handler. (That is not the thing I am being honest about, though that is a thing that is also true.) Snicket does a lot of things well, but he also does a lot of things very, very badly. I get that he’s a children’s author and that he’s catering to a younger audience—a phrase which here means “trying to entertain a large number of uncontrollable children while their parents neglect them”—but that is no excuse for the following charges I will lay against him.

Charge One: Sloppy Characterization

Maybe this is intentional. I don’t know. I suppose it’s easier for children to recognize characters by their physical characteristics, rather than by names, backstories, or complex character arcs. But that is no excuse for the flat characters I have to put up with. For example, here is a list of some of the characters and their defining characteristics:

  • Violet Baudelaire: orphan, inventor, ties her hair up with a ribbon when she’s thinking
  • Klaus Baudelaire: orphan, researcher, knows everything about everything (that’s why his hair is so big: it’s full of secrets)
  • Sunny Baudelaire: orphan, baby, biter, apparently an excellent chef, also is the size of a salami
  • Count Olaf: unibrow, shiny eyes, tattoo of an eye on his ankle, shoes without socks, bad personal hygiene
  • Esme Squalor: wears haute couture at all times, obsessed with what’s “in,” loves being Olaf’s girlfriend
  • Henchmen: two powder-faced women, the hook-handed man, the one who looks like neither a man or a woman, the bald man with the long nose

Congratulations. You are now up to speed on the characters, their motivations, and pretty much anything you ever needed to know about anything ever. I don’t care how stupid you think your audience is; this kind of sloppy characterization is unacceptable. And I know Snicket doesn’t think his audience is stupid (I’ll get to that later). These are the main characters, and they absolutely need much more “muchness” than they are given. The only character for whom a lack of real characterization works is Carmelita Spats, and here is all the description we get in the Austere Academy:

When I reproduce, I want five of her, and I will never, ever let them find out what cake smells like.

“If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway. Carmelita Spats was rude, she was violent, and she was filthy, and it is really a shame that I must describe her to you, because there are enough ghastly and distressing things in this story without even mentioning such an unpleasant person.”

Also, Carmelita Spats is my favorite person.

But it’s still crappy character development.

Charge Two: Poor Scene-Setting

I get that these novels are absurdist (because I am extraordinarily clever, that’s why, and also because these books are utterly ridiculous), but that manifests itself very oddly in the world itself. For one thing, it’s totes okay for children to have grown-up jobs, even when those jobs are highly dangerous (e.g., working at a lumber mill, manning a submarine, impersonating circus freaks, attending boarding school). For another, teachers at the highly dangerous boarding school don’t adhere to a set curriculum: one teacher tells short, pointless stories and expects the children to take detailed notes for the comprehensive tests later on, and another teacher wants to have the metric system’s babies, and if she did, she would get the class to measure said babies, just like every other object in the entire school. I’m fine with absurdism. That’s not the point.

The point is, while style appears to be in the early 1900’s (Klaus wears a suit, and the illustrations make it very clear that that suit includes breeches, and Violet wears a dress and has a hair ribbon), there are several pieces of technology that create intense amounts of confusion because they work in tandem. Throughout the course of the series, the children use cars, typewriters, submarines, hot air balloons, telephones, telegraphs, and a supercomputer. I originally thought that the series took place in about the ‘20s, given the fact that the author might have known Robert Frost (long story), but the presence of that damned supercomputer completely screws up my theory. So quite frankly, I have no idea where or when any of this takes place and I wash my hands of this weirdness, a phrase which here means “am forced to conclude that the world is irrelevant, as it is merely an engine for the children’s misfortune.”

Charge Three: Dumbass Plot Devices

As a result of my criticism, it is now having an existential crisis.

The introduction of the sugar bowl was, frankly, a stupid way to move the plot forward. I’m glad he never told us what was actually in it, but its introduction halfway through the series felt forced. On that note, the introduction of V.F.D. felt contrived, and though I know he probably had it planned from the beginning, Snicket annoyed me with all his red herrings and repetitive acronyms. Also, he never friggin’ answers what the hell that enormous question mark in the middle of the ocean is meant to be. And yeah, it’s nice that Snicket doesn’t feel the need to wrap up all the loose ends, but in the case of the question mark and the sugar bowl, why include them at all if you’re not planning to explain them?

I have laid three charges, the most severe of my complaints, at the feet of Lemony Snicket. And now for my true feelings on the subject:

Lemony Snicket, will you marry me?

Remember the part where I was supposed to discuss an author who influenced my writing style? You probably don’t, because we’ve already established that you most likely aren’t real. (Because for some reason, people read Thom’s stupid reviews way more than they read mine, which is bulls**t.) So now that everyone is stupid and/or imaginary, you should know that Snicket has had an enormous impact on the way I write. Not reviews, of course; these are jumbled sacks of nonsense that have no business being anywhere on the Internet, but you’re reading this (or not), so they’re out there anyway. First and foremost, I am a fiction writer. I’m not going to bore you with the details of my novel-in-progress (even though it’s super legit), but my style in fiction is far different than the conversational style I try to maintain while I’m deriding everybody and everything. (Yeah, I actually talk like this. I’m so sorry.)

So without further ado, I am going to leave the actual content of the books behind and focus entirely on writing style, because I am a nerd. Also, you will like it.

First off, Snicket views his audience (snot-nosed kids) as intelligent, imaginative, and eager to learn, rather than stupid and in need of cheap entertainment (which is the prevailing opinion, and in all honesty, I am way too far out of childhood to know for sure which opinion is right). And he takes the desire to learn to a whole new level. For one thing, all his titles are alliterative (The Slippery Slope, The Miserable Mill, The Grim Grotto, etc.), which is why I knew what alliteration was before I got to ninth-grade English. For another thing, there are anagrams everywhere. Most of Count Olaf’s disguises, or those of his henchmen, have names that are anagrams of “Count Olaf,” because ego, that’s why. Snicket is also considerate enough to define hard words, but he always does so in a way that enhances the story and breaks the word down into its most basic meaning in that particular context (even if it’s not particularly helpful):

In front of the cave there was a sign saying it was for sale, and the orphans could not imagine who would want to buy such a phantasmagorical—the word “phantasmagorical” here means “all the creepy, scary words you can think of put together”—place. (The Wide Window)

Because that grin isn’t creepy at all.

Snicket really doesn’t find this style until the third book, at which time the dark tone of the series (read: everyone dies) has been established. He then delves into a highly stylized form of writing complete with big words, long sentences, and absolutely baffling prose. And maybe he knows just how odd his style truly is, because he keeps begging you to read some other book (particularly The Littlest Elf. I may review that next, if it turns out to be real). He claims it’s because the books are so unfortunate, but I know better.

There are several things that remain the same no matter what the book. For one thing, a library always appears (Snicket even pointed this out at one point), whether it’s a grammatical library, or a library filled with books about reptiles, or a library consisting of files in a countless number of filing cabinets, or three books on the very bottom of an attractive set of bookshelves in an otherwise impeccably furnished room, a large stack of newspaper articles crammed beneath a fortuneteller’s table, or a library of evidence submitted at the Baudelaire’s trial in The Penultimate Peril (including newspaper articles, employment records, environmental studies, grade books, blueprints of banks, administrative records, paperwork, financial records, rule books, constitutions, carnival posters, anatomical drawings, a book alleging how wonderful Carmelita Spats was, commonplace books, photographs, hospital records, magazine articles, telegrams, couplets, maps, cookbooks, scraps of paper, screenplays, rhyming dictionaries, love letters, opera synopses, thesauri, marriage licenses, Talmudic commentaries, wills and testaments, auction catalogs, codebooks, mycological encyclopedias, menus, ferry schedules, theatrical programs, business cards, memos, novels, cookies, assorted pieces of evidence a certain person was unwilling to categorize, and someone’s mother).

For another thing, Olaf is always in disguise and everyone in the entire world, with the exception of the Baudelaires, is too brain-damaged to realize that it’s him. He once dressed up as a sailor with an eye patch and a wooden leg, and he once dressed up as a female receptionist named Shirley. There were pantyhose involved. It was the most unfortunate event of all.

For yet another thing, the books from The Miserable Mill onward begin with information that will be useful later on in the book, rather than launching straight into action. The Ersatz Elevator explains the difference between “nervous” and “anxious,” and warns you to put this book down. The Vile Village states that what you don’t read is often as important as what you do read, and this book should be part of the former, so put it down. The Hostile Hospital explains how telegraphs work, with STOPs interspersing dire warnings to stop reading this book. The Grim Grotto explains about the water cycle, interspersing descriptions of the Baudelaires and stating that the deeply boring water cycle would be a far better object of study than this book. The Penultimate Peril (probably my favorite) talks about the ripples of a pond, and how every action, great or small, spreads ripples out across the world, much like this book would if you tossed it into a pond.

“For Beatrice–no one could extinguish my love, or your house.”

As it turns out, the lack of real story (children lose rich parents, villainous ex-guardian chases them around and murders people in repeated attempts to get the children’s fortune) doesn’t even matter. The story I love is the one of Snicket himself. He lives a dangerous life in which he is constantly on the run from his enemies, writing when he can in the most unlikely of places. He contacts his editor with detailed and often roundabout instructions for obtaining a finished manuscript. He describes detailed scenarios in which people go to great lengths to pass on messages, underlining the significance of V.F.D. and Snicket’s own involvement in it. But most of all, I love his doomed relationship with a woman named Beatrice, which has led to his researching the fate of the Baudelaires. Snicket’s relationship with Beatrice shapes everything, as she is his motivation, his muse, his beating heart (even though she wrote him a two-hundred-page book explaining why she couldn’t marry him). Snicket’s life is of far greater interest to me than the Baudelaires’, and I always trudge through their parts, waiting eagerly to get back to Snicket’s own story.

I sincerely wish I could write an entire dissertation on this series. I love these books, I really do. But it might even be more apt to say that I love, or am in love with, the writer. Which is very sad, because he is a fictional character.

So happy Valentine’s Day to me, I guess.

Final Grade: A-

Final Thoughts (which are basically just bits from the books that I liked, because why not)

  • “There are two kinds of fears: rational and irrational—or, in simpler terms, fears that make sense and fears that don’t. For instance, the Baudelaire orphans have a fear of Count Olaf, which makes perfect sense, because he is an evil man who wants to destroy them. But if they were afraid of lemon meringue pie, this would be an irrational fear, because lemon meringue pie is delicious and has never hurt a soul. Being afraid of a monster under the bed is perfectly rational, because there may in fact be a monster under your bed at any time, ready to eat you all up, but a fear of realtors is an irrational fear. Realtors, as I’m sure you know, are people who assist in the buying and selling of houses. Besides occasionally wearing an ugly yellow coat, the worst a realtor can do to you is show you a house that you find ugly, and so it is completely irrational to be terrified of them.” (The Wide Window)
  • “But even if they could go home it would be difficult for me to tell you what the moral of the story is. In some stories, it’s easy. The moral of “The Three Bears,” for example, is “Never break into someone’s house.” The moral of “Snow White” is “Never eat apples.” The moral of World War One is “Never assassinate Archduke Ferdinand.” ” (The Wide Window)
  • “Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have. For instance, if you wake up to the sound of twittering birds, and find yourself in an enormous canopy bed, with a butler standing next to you holding a breakfast of freshly made muffins and hand-squeezed orange juice on a silver tray, you will know that your day will be a splendid one. If you wake up to the sound of church bells, and find yourself in a fairly big regular bed, with a butler standing next to you holding a breakfast of hot tea and toast on a plate, you know that your day will be O.K. And if you wake up to the sound of somebody banging two metal pots together, and find yourself in a small bunk bed, with a nasty foreman standing in the doorway holding no breakfast at all, you know that your day will be horrid.” (The Miserable Mill)
  • “Although “jumping to conclusions” is an expression, rather than an activity, it is as dangerous as jumping off a cliff, jumping in front of a moving train, and jumping for joy. If you jump off a cliff, you have a very good chance of experiencing a painful landing unless there is something below you to cushion your fall, such as a body of water or an immense pile of tissue paper. If you jump in front of a moving train, you have a very good chance of experiencing a painful voyage unless you are wearing some sort of train-proof suit. And if you jump for joy, you have a very good chance of experiencing a painful bump on the head, unless you make sure you are standing someplace with very high ceilings, which joyous people rarely do. Clearly, the solution to anything involving jumping is either to make sure you are jumping to a safe place, or not to jump at all.” (The Vile Village) That is all.