SUPERVERSIVE: “A Series of Unfortunate Events” Part 2: The Baptism of Lemony Snicket

Tuesday , 3, January 2017 6 Comments

In part one of this series, “The Dark Brilliance of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events'”, I ended my article with this:

I was going to end this article here, but I got to thinking: Would the world be a better place if these books didn’t exist?

It’s an interesting question without, I think, a straightforward answer. Being old enough to appreciate the books for what they DO bring to the table and reject the ugly moral relativism underlying them, I do intend to watch the Netflix series, and I find re-reading the books to be a highly entertaining experience. Snicket is very, very good at what he does…which still doesn’t answer the question.

I think the answer is that for it to work, the series would need to be “baptized” But what does that mean, and what would it entail? .

I’ll explain,

In point of fact, the majority of the series can be accepted wholesale; in the early books especially the moral order is clear and sharply delineated. Nobody questions that Count Olaf is a horrible, evil man, or that the Baudelaire orphans are brave, resourceful, and upright people. The first sign of anything getting hazy is all the way in book the eighth, “The Hostile Hospital”.

And even here there isn’t necessarily a problem. There’s nothing wrong with portraying the struggle and fear of turning into the monsters you fight. It all comes down to how that conflict is resolved.

As I write this, I just finished book the tenth book, “The Slippery Slope”. Despite its title, it is the only book in the series that takes a clear stance against moral relativism. I actually disagree with some of the conclusions the Baudelaires draw in the book, but my conclusions are not the point. The point is that the Baudelaires believed there was a stand to take, believed in a difference between heroes and villains, and decided to act like heroes. Snicket himself contrasts people who want to make the world a better place through reading as better than people who want to burn everything down – an admittedly obvious stance to take (it is, after all, a children’s book, if an exceedingly clever one), but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a stance at all. He even has Olaf and his villainous girlfriend Esme actually use the “for the greater good” argument when discussing their schemes, and it is shown to be an unambiguously wicked argument.

“The Slippery Slope” is not one of the best books in the series as far as ideas and writing go. It doesn’t reach the imaginative heights of, say, “The Wide Window” or “The Carnivorous Carnival” (I’ll always love the  fellow who believes he is only fit to be a carnival freak because he’s ambidextrous, and solves his “problem” by tying one hand behind his back), and doesn’t have the amusingly byzantine plotting of “The Penultimate Peril” or the otherworldliness of “The Grim Grotto”. Save for one deliciously Snicket-like moment mid-book (where Snicket tries to convince the reader to put down the book so he can send a private letter), there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it, nor is it nearly as poor as “The End”. It’s probably better than a couple of the earlier books as well, but if I was recommending the series to someone this wouldn’t be the book I used as a selling point.

Where it succeeds is in its presentation and handling of the central thematic conflicts of the series. When faced with the opportunity to become more like the villains they fight – multiple opportunities, in fact – the Baudelaires elect to try and be good people even at substantial risk to their own lives. Book the tenth is all about making choices: the Baudelaires choose to try and be good people, Carmelita Spats decides to be a villain (and how can she not with a name like that) and, in one of my favorite moments of the series, two of Olaf’s henchmen from all the way back in book one simply get up and walk away.

The book ends more or less tragically, of course, but that’s not my point. It never was. The point is that, even when bad things happen, good and evil still exist, and the heroes choose good. That is the reason “The Slippery Slope” is appropriate for children and the finale of book the twelfth, and all of book the thirteenth, is not.

“The Penultimate Peril” is actually a really good book. When I first read it it was my favorite in the series (now I don’t really have a preference). But the ending always bothered me.

I think it’s really only the very last scenes of book the twelfth, and the entirety of book the thirteenth, that actually need to be baptized for the series to work. Snicket could have written something that wasn’t a cop out, or even outright evil, that was in line with the rest of his series. Let us engage in a thought experiment:

Let us imagine the ending of “The Penultimate Peril” working very similarly to the way it actually worked out, except in this case, Olaf starts the fire on his own, after the Baudelaires discuss and refuse; and after it is started our clever Baudelaire orphans come up with a way to convince everybody to leave the building on their own; perhaps they disguise their voices and pretend to be someone else, and since it is not them speaking the people are readier to believe them. Perhaps Olaf is tricked into another room or out the back and exposed, and the Baudelaires make it to the ship on their own, and set sail.

But, no! In the background, as the book ends, Count Olaf follows on his own homemade raft! And he’s gotten his hands on the poisonous mushroom…

(As always, it makes sense in context.)

This is a classic SoUE style depressing ending – maybe you can even imply that Olaf barred the door somehow, and stopped people from escaping – except in this case the Baudelaires are still the good guys, and Olaf is still the bad guy. There is a moral order. Good and bad exist. And this is just one possibility. Snicket is a clever guy – I’m sure he can come up with others.

As for book the thirteenth, who knows? I would trash the version we actually get entirely; it is not a bad book writing wise, per se, and contains plenty of Snicket’s trademark wit and humor, along with some clever twists – but it is a cheap, disappointing cop-out of an ending, and is morally repugnant. Better to scrap it and come up with something entirely new.

In book the eleventh, an exciting adventure tale of submarines and scuba divers, Snicket gives us this interesting quote:

The quote is fascinating, and enlightening, because, technically, it’s not totally incorrect (and the brilliantly Snicket-y writing style also helps its memorability). The problem with it is that it intentionally blurs the distinction between good and evil.

It is, of course, true that all people have good and bad within them. But it is not true that there is no difference between a wicked and noble person. We can all make choices. And even if we made wicked choices in the past, redemption is always possible – unless, of course, you refuse to accept you could be better. And quotes like that contribute to that attitude (although it admittedly captures my attitude towards chef salad quite well).

In any case, books directed at ten year olds simply should not attempt to make it an open question whether or not the orphans on the run from a murderer are on an equal moral plain with the murderer himself. It’s not right, it’s not honest, and it’s beneath Snicket’s writing ability. While I can recommend the books written for ten year olds to older readers – and indeed, I do! They’re excellent for many reasons – I cannot in good conscience recommend them to ten year olds.

And not because they’re dark or disturbing, but because they’re a lie. And I think it is that core distinction that best summarizes what, exactly, it means for fiction to be superversive, in the broadest sense: Fiction must tell the truth. And I truly wish “A Series of Unfortunate Events” did.

  • I think the series shows up strongest if we take it to be concerned simply with reading. Obviously there is a continual reading theme, and the difference between volunteers and villains is the difference between those who read books and those who burn them, but the series is itself explicitly structured as a novel — from the Bad Beginning we rise through increasingly complex action until Hotel Denouement in Penultimate and slide into The End. And the interaction of the Baudelaires with everyone — their parents, first seen in the glow of childhood, and then more ambiguously as questions start mounting up, here and there, about things like the sugar bowl and the poison darts at the opera; Olaf, first seen as evil but then complicated by the discovery that he was originally much like the Baudelaires, and by his relationship with Kit Snicket; and so forth — seems pretty clearly intended to suggest the increasing complexity of readers and their interaction with books as they grow.

    The problem with the series, then, is that it ends up subordinating moral questions to (of all things) a point about reading, and an arguable one, at that. Moral ambiguity is a powerful element in story, but to be successful a story has to do something with it story-wise, not simply make the point that maturing readers grow into stories that involve moral ambiguities. The moral ambiguity that the series introduces doesn’t actually go anywhere.

    • Anthony says:

      Excellent way of putting it. For all of the cleverness of the series – and it is exceedingly clever – it ultimately rings hollow because Snicket never decides on what sort of point he wants to make. As a result, he makes no point at all and ends the whole thing on a woeful anticlimax.

    • Anthony says:

      (Also, if the demonic imagery in “The End” doesn’t disturb you – this is a general “you” – then you’re either not paying attention or need to take demons more seriously.)

  • maniacprovost says:

    There’s a temptation to write off the moral relativism and bad message fic as not really a big deal.

    But, I know that books I read as a child impacted my world view. I’m fortunate that I stumbled across Narnia and The Hardy Boys, not Secret Pizza Party.

    • Anthony says:

      Exactly. That’s why this is such a problem – because it’s marketed towards children.

      Marketed towards adults, well, we’re big boys and we can draw our own conclusions. But books are how children’s worldviews are shaped.

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