Friday, December 01, 2006

This be the end

While away, I treated myself to The End, the last in A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket. (Excerpt.)

I love this series. It's not particularly meaty; both the characters and their adventures are rather like sketches that hint at depths never fully realized. It's fun (in a grim way) and easy, with more mood and attitude than substance. And that's fine. Like an Edward Gorey drawing: charming, witty, morbid. It's also deceptively mature and well crafted, with simple but meaningful metaphors (the story is like an onion) and life lessons ("It depends on how you look at it."). It has all the elements of classic children's literature — orphans, boarding school, eccentrics, treasure, circus freaks, a quest — pared down to their barest, ugliest essence.

I love the wordplay and the literary allusions. I only regret that I cannot read these books as a 10-year-old. (I look forward to Helena's experience of them.)

What I love about The End is that very little is solved or resolved. The reader is warned:

But it cannot be said that The End contains the end of the Baudelaires' story, any more than The Bad Beginning contained its beginning. The children's story began long before that terrible day on Briny Beach, but there would have to be another volume to chronicle when the Baudelaires were born, and when their parents married, and who was playing the violin in the candlelit restaurant when the Baudelaire parents first laid eyes on one another, and what was hidden inside that violin, and the childhood of the man who orphaned the girl who put it there, and even then it could not said that the Baudelaires' story had not begun, because you would still need to know about a certain tea party held in a penthouse suite, and the baker who made the scones served at the tea party, and the baker's assistant who smuggled the secret ingredient into the scone batter through a very narrow drainpipe, and how a crafty volunteer created the illusion of a fire in the kitchen simply by wearing a certain dress and jumping around, and even then the beginning of the story would be as far away as the shipwreck that left the Baudelaire parents as castaways on the coastal shelf is far away from the outrigger on which the islanders would depart. One could say, in fact, that no story really has a beginning, and that no story really has an end, as all of the world's stories are as jumbled as the items in the arboretum, with their details and secrets all heaped together so that the whole story, from beginning to end, depends on how you look at it. We might even say the world is always in medias res — a Latin phrase which means "in the midst of things" or "in the middle of a narrative" — and that it is impossible to solve any mystery, or find the root of any trouble, and so The End is really the middle of the story, as many people in this history will live long past the close of Chapter Thirteen, or even the beginning of the story, as a new child arrives in the world at the chapter's close. But one cannot sit in the midst of things forever.


And this, I think, is an excellent introduction for 10-year-olds to both literature and life. Interconnectedness and continuity.

Most of the allusions throughout the series are superficially appropriate to the characters and situations but don't run very deep. They provide a chuckle to those in the know, perhaps make the reading of juvenile fiction more tolerable for parents. In youngsters they may inspire questions, but perhaps more important is the mere forming of an acquaintanceship — that years later they will not shy away from, say, Prufrock or Ishmael for finding something familiar in them.

Count Olaf in a climactic scene, which takes place on a coastal shelf, quotes Philip Larkin. "Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don't have any kids yourself." And this, my friends, is the theme of the Baudelaires' story, perhaps life itself: They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

3 comments:

Carl V. said...

I have purchased all these as they've come out but have only read up to number 6. They are really fun but I don't love them as much as my wife and daughter. They are so creative and well done. I will eventually get back to them and finish them. I also highly recommend the audio versions as Tim Curry does a fantastic job with them.

marydell said...

I loved these books. It really surprised me at how many reviews I saw (lots on Amazon, but we know those are bad anyway) with people saying how disappointed they were with the end of the series. Many complained that loose ends (like what was in the sugar bowl) weren't tied up. They didn't get it, and I agree that these books are excellent lessons in life. Rarely is real life neatly tied up.

Kimberly said...

I've only read the first two books in the series, but have the full set on my Christmas wish list. They are such fun.