If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.
The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket. 1999.
Oh, Lemony Snicket, how did I love thee, back when I was a mere tiddler reading through the non-YA section of my school’s library (and furious because my mother would not give me a note permitting me to read the YA books until I had turned ten). The Bad Beginning, book one of his A Series of Unfortunate Events, doesn’t quite count as a 21st-century children’s novel, but the largest portion of the series was published after 2000 (it ended in 2006 with the splendidly named thirteenth installment, The End), so I am counting it towards my goal of reading through this list. Really, to be a completist, I should read the whole series, but I already did read it, when it came out, and the point of the challenge is primarily to expose myself to new children’s fiction, so The Bad Beginning will suffice.
You may or may not know the premise of the series, which is that three resourceful and much-loved children—Violet, an inventor; Klaus, a reader; and Sunny, the baby, who likes biting—are orphaned in a mysterious house fire. The terms of their parents’ will stipulate they must to be sent to live with a relative, and thus their woeful adventures begin. In The Bad Beginning, the relative who takes them in is the “short-tempered, demanding and bad-smelling” Count Olaf, whose house is covered in pictures of eyes and who is obviously scheming to get hold of the vast fortune that the Baudelaire children will inherit as soon as Violet comes of age. He is, or calls himself, an actor, and concocts a plan that involves marrying Violet, under the guise of her performing an ingenue role in a play that conveniently culminates in a wedding ceremony. The children manage to foil the plot, but Olaf and his associates escape, and their parents’ executor must find a new relative for them to live with. Cue book two…
Today’s tiddlers probably come to the misfortunes of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire through either the mostly dreadful Jim Carrey movie of 2004 (rescued only by the performance of Jim Carrey, which is excellent), or the more recent Netflix adaptation. This is something of a shame, because Snicket’s style is so inimitable, and such a delight. As with most things loved in childhood, I worried that a revisit as an adult would disappoint; it did not, not in the slightest. From the patently false authorial name and bio (“Lemony Snicket was born in a small town where the inhabitants were suspicious and prone to riot. …He is considered something of an expert by leading authorities.”) to the slightly off-kilter urban layout of wherever it is the Baudelaires live (there’s a meat district and a banking district, but also, unremarked-upon, a sculpture district), to the tone that effortlessly combines world-weariness with a knowledgeable avuncularity, Snicket’s world has lost none of its charm. Part of that is that he, and the book that he’s writing, seems to know its antecedents: numerous asides, and a curious blankness or vagueness to the wider world beyond the direct experiences of the Baudelaire children, make it quite clear that there’s an element of fable, or even allegory, at work.*
*footnote: I would argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events becomes increasingly allegorical as it goes on, at least up to about book seven; the children are dumped with a procession of unsuitable relatives, each of whom personifies a fatal weakness of character that allows Count Olaf to continue menacing them. It’s not dissimilar to medieval allegorical adventures: each failed guardian constitutes an obstacle, or a test. But that’s somewhat outside the remit of this review.
Back to the tone: one of the things this series is famous for is its in-text (and in context) definitions of words. Snicket does this for the first time on page two:
…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley—the word “rickety”, you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse”—alone to the seashore…
It’s such an intelligent way of enriching the text without making it inaccessible that one is surprised by how novel it feels. I can’t think of any children’s book that I read before Snicket that did this, and can’t really think of many after, either. And it’s not just for didactic purposes; quite often it’s funny, either by defying our expectations about what words need clarifying (“…his voice faking—a word which here means feigning—kindness”), or by being outrageously context-specific (again, this happens more often in the later books, and usually takes the form of “translating” Sunny’s non-verbal gurgles).
If The Bad Beginning was no more than some entertaining wordplay (one more I can’t resist: the sham play written to conceal the marriage is supposedly by “Al Funcoot”, which, although this is never actually said, is a delightfully crap anagram of “Count Olaf”), it’d still be fun. But its real power—Snicket’s real power—is that there is menace, handled with a lightness of touch that only enhances the effect. Consider, for example, this moment between one of Olaf’s henchmen and fourteen-year-old Violet:
Nobody paid a bit of attention to the children, except for the bald man, who stopped and stared Violet in the eye.
“You’re a pretty one,” he said, taking her face in his rough hands. “If I were you I would try not to anger Count Olaf, or he might wreck that pretty little face of yours.” Violet shuddered, and the bald man gave a high-pitched giggle and left the room.
The eye contact, the touching of her face—perhaps most of all, that “high-pitched giggle”—it’s terrifying. Snicket is too well aware of his young readers to be quite explicit about the sexual nature of the threat that Olaf poses to Violet, but reading as an adult, it is absolutely clear. More on a child’s level, perhaps, is the fact of Olaf’s unpredictable physical cruelty. He strikes Klaus across the face, knocking him to the floor; he puts Sunny in a birdcage; and once he has the children’s money, he’ll kill them. In many ways he is a cartoonish villain, but always a thoroughly believable one.
The only fault I might ascribe to The Bad Beginning is that it lacks some of the baroque elements of later installments in the series; there’s nothing in it to match the empty lift shaft in The Ersatz Elevator or the terrifying climax of The Miserable Mill. Even the allusions and wordplay are muted in comparison: there is, of course, the fact that the Baudelaires’ executor is named Mr. Poe and his horrible sons are named Edgar and Albert, and that he works at Mulctuary Money Management, but that is about as much as we get. In comparison to later books with characters such as the fashionable Esmé Squalor or the tyrannical headmaster Nero (obsessed with his violin), it’s a little thin. (I suspect I still haven’t worked out all of the references in these books.) But as the first in a long series, it contains all the seeds of later brilliance. Not such a bad beginning, after all.