Lemony Snicket, “Who Could That Be At This Hour,” Hardie Grant Egmont, 2012.
RRP: $8.99 online from Dymocks
I will forever wonder why Lemony Snicket is classified as a children’s author. Though his marketers have gone for that age group, his style, his themes and his insistence on discussing bitter truths one can’t avoid, makes him rather transcend age brackets. I will always marvel at Snicket’s sheer nerve at calling his new series All The Wrong Questions. A sneaky jibe at the many A Series of Unfortunate Events fans who felt let down by The End? I like to think so. Many people found A Series of Unfortunate Events frustrating. Just tell us the damn answer to what’s in the sugar bowl, Snicket? What’s the dealio with Olaf and the Baudelaire parents and poison darts and why, oh why, can you not just tell us straight who Beatrice is? I never felt let down. It is obvious to me that the point of the series was not the answer to such questions (though the answers are there if one reads between the lines and uses a bit of imagination. Don’t believe me? Ask me a so called unanswered question in the comments and I vow I’ll come up with the answer from the text), but rather the point was to point out that often we don’t know all of the answers and that no matter how frustrating that is, the world isn’t fair and the world doesn’t have to care. Often stories are in medias res or in the midst of things and that’s the post modern point.
Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events used a clever (or highly irritating depending on how you look at it, but isn’t that Snicket’s point yet again?) double feint. Because the story wasn’t ostensibly about the sugar bowl or there being a possible survivor of the fire whose whearabouts were unknown, or what VFD stands for or why the Baudelaire parents were involved with it. At it’s true heart, ASOUE is a harsh and uncompromising look at death and grief entering and changing forever children’s worlds. It is about the isolation and the distant gulf that such an experience generates in a person. It is about a world where adults are the unfathomable ‘other’ and where most people aren’t black and white, good or evil, but rather they are mixed together in a confusing vinegarette of a chef’s salad. As with other current post modern stories like the British Life on Mars, Stephan Moffat Doctor Who or to a lesser extent Sherlock, the point is often not the intricacies of the plot, but rather, the continuation of themes. Snicket never lost sight of the reocuring motif of fire or of the terrible memories associated with it. And all in a nifty package of black satire and absurdism.
I was very nervous about a new Snicket novel. After all, A Series of Unfortunate Events rates as one of the best series I’ve ever read. And All The Wrong Questions is a new series in the same universe. No more Baudelaires? How could this possibly work? But then I’d forgotten about how interesting Snicket’s own personal asides were throughout the series, and in particular, his Unauthorized Autobiography that managed to enigmatically clear up quite a lot of unanswered questions in the series. Because that is the other wonderful thing about A Series of Unfortunate Events. Lemony Snicket and his siblings are actual players in the Baudelaire game. Snicket is an unreliable and damaged narrator. Who’s to say that he is not every bit as black as Olaf is? Who’s to say that what we read on the page is even accurate (See The Beatrice Letters). All The Wrong Questions is Lemony’s official account of his early days in VFD and I am pleased to report that it is every bit as good as A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In “Who Could That Be At This Hour?” Snicket is taken from people who may or may not be his real parents and flung into an adventure with his new VFD chaperone, Theadora S. Markson, (and what the S stands for not even she will say). Markson takes Snicket to a town called Stain’d By The Sea, a virtual ghost town where everyone seems as shadowy, as confusing and as dangerous as each other. Ordered to steal the statue of a mysterious beast from a family that has lived in the town for years, Snicket struggles between what is right and what is wrong, who to trust and who to make promises he can’t keep to. New characters include two young taxi drivers who offer lifts for literary tips, Moxie, a young journalist and, perhaps the most interesting character of all, (and the most clearly noir femme fatale of the story), Ellington Feint, another young girl who interests Snicket more than he can help. Snicket’s style changes for this new start. The genre is still absurdist but now Snicket parodies film noir rather than historical memoir and boys and girls own adventures. The writing has improved with less irritating word definitions peppered left, right and centre. The melancholy bitterness still permeates. The feeling of being flung into the story in medias res, intact. Even a new illustrator doesn’t detract. Seth suits the new film noir style perfectly.
People who never liked A Series of Unfortunate Events in the first place, or grew tired of Snicket’s enigmatic style are unlikely to enjoy this new outing. But me? The sequel comes out in October 2013. I await it with baited breath and much gnashing of teeth even as I admire Snicket’s ability to write beautiful, poetic, bittersweet prose, intriguing pastiche tales and more to the point, as I admire his sheer audacity at starting a new series that poses just as many questions for the reader as A Series of Unfortunate Events did. Much like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I suspect that for a second time, everyone will be asking all of the wrong questions. And for the second time, that will be the series uncompromising point.
“Who Could That Be At This Hour” by Lemony Snicket: 5/5 inky stars