I’ve loved Lemony Snicket for ages: ever since the (bad) beginning of the Series of Unfortunate Events. That series features not one but two female characters among its three protagonists, the Baudelaire children, and Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are independent, resourceful, intelligent, and courageous — usually more so than most of the adults they encounter. The series also challenges (though gently) the notion of simple divisions between good and evil. The children grow up to realise that people are complicated, as are the circumstances that surround them. His books also champion all things literary and literate, including a diverse vocabulary (defined in context), references to literature (such as the Baudelaires’ very name, or codes slipped into T.S. Eliot poems), witty demonstrations of grammatical and literary devices, and a great love of libraries as the fragile epicentres of knowledge and peace.
His latest series includes all of these Snicket trademarks, though in a slightly different flavour. While the Series of Unfortunate events appears to be set in a pre-digital era (there are no cell phones but there are functioning telegraph machines — even if they’re a bit ancient by the time the Baudelaires happen upon them), the books in the All the Wrong Questions series are set in a world that feels like it could belong to thirties and forties (a sense that is heightened both by Seth’s cover art and chapter head drawings and by the “choose your own adventure” style videos released at the end of September). The temporal difference is of course accounted for by the fact that All the Wrong Questions details Lemony’s life early on in his VFD career (that is, pre-Baudelaires). But technological differences aside (we see a lot more typewriters and phonographs and roadsters in this series), we still get the sense that children are often much more astute and resourceful than adults: Lemony’s chaperone, Theodora S. Markson, is 52nd on a list of 52 chaperones, and has more hair and ego than sense; the Officers Mitchum are a husband and wife team who can’t stop bickering long enough to actually solve crimes, and just about every other adult Snicket and his friends run into proves blinded by their assumptions that adults are more trustworthy than children. The only adult who differs in this respect is, typically, a (sub) librarian, Dewey Dashiell (again putting forth the message that libraries are special places while simultaneously having fun with words).
The literary references are still here, but are often more oblique than in the Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket usually describes books in a roundabout way, naming characters or storylines, but rarely any titles. Many of the books are the sorts that appear on curriculum reading lists in middle and secondary school, however; in the latest book, “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, we have (amongst other works) Steinbeck’s The Red Pony (“A man gave his son Jody a pony, and Jody had to promise to take care of it. Then the pony got sick. I could see where this was going and put the book down”, 31), A Separate Peace (“Two guys are friends, supposedly, and then one of them tricks the other one and he falls out of a tree and breaks his leg. The moral of the story seems to be, some boys are mean at school. I don’t need a book to tell me that” (62-3), and A Wrinkle in Time (“There’s a book I really like … that begins on a dark and stormy night … I went through every detail, from the scientist who disappears mysteriously to the frighteningly intelligent boy, from the haunted house to the curious woman with the crystal ball to the terrifying black cloud and the brain that can talk all by itself”, 154). The periphrastic nature of the literary references in the All the Wrong Questions series adds an additional puzzle element to the books (besides the unfolding mystery of VFD, the ailing town of Stained-by-the-Sea, and villain Hangfire and his plots of poisoning, kidnapping, and arson). Readers can guess the books they’ve already read and easily look up the ones they haven’t.
In “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” we’re also introduced to a word game called “Beethoven” and to several new dishes of food (another similarity between the two book series). Snicket’s books never fail to be entertaining at the same time that they encourage being inquisitive about the world; they value learning and discovery, the thoughts of young people, and resourcefulness and confidence (since I read the first book, “Who Could that Be at this Hour?”, I’ve often found myself reminding myself to follow Snicket’s advice and “get scared later” in the face of daunting tasks, 172).
Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography is a companion piece to the Series of Unfortunate Events. The “unauthorized” nature of the book is carried out in humourous metatextual layers, with Daniel Handler introducing the book “as the official representative of Lemony Snicket in all legal, literary, and social matters” (ix) — Handler is, of course, the author of all the Snicket books. The chapters are made up of fragments of documents appearing to be written by Snicket himself, but of which the provenance is mysterious and garbled.
The “Autobiography” offers hints, jokes, and further mysteries about Snicket’s life and the fate of characters appearing in the Baudelaire case. As such, it will delight those who have been following the Baudelaire series (but likely confuse anyone who hasn’t yet read those earlier books).
Snicket’s File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is another tie-in book — this time for the All the Wrong Questions series (though more accessible to non-readers of Snicket’s series). Purportedly a list of minor investigations that Snicket and Markson (but mostly Snicket of course) were involved in during their stay in Stained-by-the-Sea, the book references places like Parital Foods, Hungry’s Diner, and the Police Station, and characters like Theodora S. Markson, Jake Hungry, and the Officers Mitchum, that are important places and figures in the All the Wrong Questions books. The stories in the book are mini-mysteries in the style of Encyclopedia Brown: each chapter is a different “suspicious incident” where readers can try to guess the ending (answers at the end, of course, along with tantalising “solutions” to some extra cases). There’s also a reference to the Swinster Pharmacy!
Snicket’s enigmatic 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy is aesthetically pleasing and compelling: the 29 statements, Lisa Brown’s accompanying illustrations, and dustcover that unfolds into an incompletely marked map prompt the imagination more than they tell us anything firm about the Swinster Pharmacy. (We do know that the Swinster Pharmacy is a bit of a dubious place though.)
In sum, go read some Snicket. And then tell me if you know what the “Last Word” at the end of the 13 Suspicious Incidents is.
11 October 2014
Snicket, Lemony. Illus. Seth. “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012.
Snicket, Lemony. Illus. Seth. “When Did You See Her Last?” Toronto: HarperCollins, 2013.
Snicket, Lemony. Illus. Seth. “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014.
Snicket, Lemony. Illus. Seth. File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014.
Snicket, Lemony. Illus. “Some of the photographs in this book were taken by Julie Blattberg”. Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Snicket, Lemony. Illus. Lisa Brown. 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy. California: McSweeney’s McMullens, 2014.