Series of Unfortunate Events

A Series of Unfortunate Events 

By Lemony Snicket 
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner


    After word reached Plutarch that his young daughter had passed away he wrote a consoling letter to his wife noting, "when a house is on fire the neighbors rush up with buckets of water, but when the soul is on fire people rush up and throw more wood on."

    While Plutarch may have disapproved of the very great pleasure people generally take in misery and woe, artists across the centuries have known that however complex and morally ambiguous emotional responses to real misery are, fictional woe is a gold mine in terms of audience satisfaction.

    One need only consider the entire gothic genre, with its cascade of catastrophic events visited on amiable lovers, or the divine melancholy which Schubert infused into music built around the most morbidly sentimental poems to ever gall an innocent sheet of paper, or the gauntlet of tribulations through which virtuous nineteenth century heroines passed, perpetually fending off the machinations of would be seducers, fair seeming men, tragically debased by the luciferian vicissitudes of modern thinking.

    While the elements of woeful melodrama are necessarily as ludicrous as possible, parodying them is not as easy as might be supposed. Jane Austen's immortal Northanger Abbey, and Henry Fielding's Shamela, stand out as having captured both the follies, and the pleasures, of their subjects.

    With the exception of Roald Dahl, and to some extent Natalie Babbitt, children's literature has been devoid of books which have utilized the gothic sensibility both to parody its absurdity and to genuinely wallow in its melancholic pleasures.

    The dangers of black humor in a children's book are many. How is one to carry over the absurdity of melodrama in a way that children can comprehend? How can one present tragedy and terrible occurrences to children without coming off as cheap, inappropriate or perverse?

    The answers to all these questions and more can be found in a marvelous new group of children's books entitled, A Series of Unfortunate Events. The books relate the woeful adventures that befall three very likeable children, the Baudelaire orphans. In the first book alone, aptly entitled The Bad Beginning, "the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast."

    Enormously funny and sublimely composed, these books also manage to treat sensitive topics with a great deal of straightforward sensibility.  Interspersed throughout the stories Lemony Snicket, their pseudonymous author, uses his obvious love, and command, of language to deftly explain important literary conceptual devices, such as dramatic irony, and complex vocabulary.

    The children, for example, are given "permission to take a 'rickety' trolleyCthe word 'rickety,' you probably know, here means 'unsteady' or 'likely to collapse,'Calone to the seashore." A delight for both parents and children, no one with a sense of humor and a love of language is likely to take Snicket's suggestion to put his books "down at once and (start) reading something happy," literally.