Friday, February 25, 2005

Rethinking "A Series Of Unfortunate Events"

For some reason entirely unknown to me I have continued reading Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events books, even though I was unimpressed with the earlier books. I can honestly say now that I have a better opinion of the series than I did before, although I stand by my judgment that their didactic tone is distracting, and that they are too dark for smallish children. In fact, after I read Book 4, I wasn't going to read any more, but I read Book 5 anyway, solely because it was set in a school and I had been wondering this whole time why the Baudelaires' guardians never seemed to be very concerned with their schooling.

The characters do seem to be developing, and starting in Book 5 with the introduction of the two Quagmire triplets and the mystery of V.F.D., I started becoming interested enough in the series to finish reading it. Now that I've read Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, however, I may go back and re-read the earlier books. There is more to these books than meets the eye. Snicket is playing some complicated textual games in these books. I had noticed the anagrams which are everywhere in the text (that is, everywhere that doesn't contain a pedantic vocabulary lesson, a paean to Beatrice, or a literary allusion). But there may also be messages encoded in the text as well, and so I think I'll pass the time until the next installment is released in October by re-reading the earlier books looking for the key words that indicate the presence of a coded message.

I do want to see where the series is heading, though, before I make a final recommendation. The real person whose pseudonym is Lemony Snicket is an anti-Bush partisan. That in itself is not a disqualification for writing good literature (Rowling, as I recall, is also anti-Bush), but unlike Rowling he's started sneaking snarky, explicitly anti-Bush references into the writing (such as having baby Sunny say "Busheney" which means "You're an evil man with no concern whatsoever for other people"). This sort of contemporary political reference is grating in a setting that is intended to be obviously fictional and whimsically anachronistic. If he goes beyond the occasional indirect snark and starts making explicit comparisons between the evil characters and President Bush, he'll have crossed the line between writing fiction and writing partisan propaganda.

To me, the mark of good literature and movies is that partisans of every stripe will see their own position in it, so that it has the effect of binding the culture together instead of factionalizing it. Christians, Pagans, Mormons, Jews, and agnostics have all commented that they are amazed that Tolkien was able to work so much of their religious beliefs into the Lord of the Rings series. When Kerry supporters came out of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" saying the movie supported Kerry, and Bush supporters came out of it saying it supported Bush, I knew it had to be a good movie, because people on both sides were able to see themselves in it. If all a work reflects is its author, then it's not a good piece of literature, it's an op-ed, and only those who already agree with the author will see themselves in it. It remains to be seen if Lemony Snicket can rise to the challenge, overcome his political prejudices and, in the end, write a work of literature.