The Short Version: Gwen Needle has decided to become a pirate. This, after having stolen some things and gotten in trouble and meeting a new friend – but her course has never been clearer. Her parents, meanwhile, are oblivious and as her dad sets out to try and land a big deal for work, she sets out to pilage and plunder. But the 21st Century has other ideas…
The Review: I am an enormous fan of Daniel Handler’s pseudonymic work as Lemony Snicket. His dryer-than-dry wit, the intelligence and thought, the gleefully macabre storytelling, and the rather warm emotional arcs of the characters made A Series of Unfortunate Events a rather… well, fortunate series of books for me. Ditto his slightly more uneven but ultimately still delightful All the Wrong Questions series, which wraps up this fall.
Having been a Snicket fan for so long but having strangely avoided all grownup work by the man, I’ve long thought I ought to pick up a Handler-proper novel. The event of a new one seemed like the perfect time and I was lucky enough to land an advance reader’s copy… that I glanced at but left on my stack. Something about the first pages, which I read several times, warned me: I was unsure of why, but I would not like this book.
But two dear friends and intimately trusted literary tastemakers both really enjoyed it. Plus, it’s Daniel Handler! What could go wrong?
Turns out not too much goes wrong necessarily – unfortunately, just enough does.
Let’s start with that beginning, which feels oddly like the beginning of a Snicket book – an unnamed narrator who is not invited to a party, sneaking around a house, objectively and plainly telling us this story. Who is this man? Why does he occasionally pop into the narrative at other moments, both as an author and as a character? I wanted this to be charming, but it felt odd, like something Handler couldn’t shake about the Snicket persona. It set me off-balance and not in the fun way, from the very start.
The other off-putting, imbalancing thing about this book is that the whole thing careens around a bit as though it had a few too many drinks at the party last night. Perhaps it’s a winking acknowledgement of the fact that the book is about pirates but I’m hesitant to give Handler that much metanarrational credit – I think the book just lists about because he didn’t quite know what to do with any of these characters. There’s a very loose sense of linear time and as such we’re left wondering who is doing what when and why. Except it seems like it ought to be straightforward, like the reader (or, at least, this particular reader) had missed something that would’ve straightened it all out.
Handler’s humor and dry wit are still at hand, thankfully – and there are plenty of redeeming scenes and moments in this book, moments that show that the man has an undoubted talent with the pen. But there were also “humorous” moments in this book that made me cringe. Handler is a satirist and he’s taking aim at our present day sense of wealth and white privilege… but most times a racist joke or comment is just a racist joke or comment, not a meta-comment on the comment. And Handler has a notable handful moments in this book that felt downright uncomfortable, especially in light of his disastrous Jacqueline Woodson joke at the last National Book Awards. It’s not Handler in particular who is problematic here but rather the fact that these sort of moments are still happening. There is a difference between this book and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octooron – and not just the race of the two authors: the latter satirizes race directly and blasts past discomfort into a new understanding while the former awkwardly drops it in, hoping that the comments will be seen as part of a larger send-up. It’s hard to explain, but suffice it to say: there were moments here where I thought “yeeeeesh”. Maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, I digress.
I really struggled with the plot of the novel overall, too. It’s a great idea in concept: young girl in the present day decides to become a pirate. And this idea, or at least a riff on it, played out tremendously in Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! – there’s even a stabbing in both books. But Handler goes from quirky to horrifying in just about no time at all and the real world implications of what we had assumed was a bit of a wacky novel suddenly come screaming in, full force. People die in this book and it’s not funny, it’s not neat. We’re forced to suddenly see Gwen, specifically – although the other characters as well, by association – as something much more disturbed than she appeared to be at the beginning. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that she’s trying to become her own person and her parents are awful and don’t recognize that she has some real issues that need dealing with. Perhaps it’s just a part of this satire thing, going farther with the idea than maybe need be in order to make some kind of point. I don’t know. But the book veers so sharply that I practically got whiplash and never quite recovered.
It also drops a plot twist in near the end that, while I admit I didn’t see coming remotely and I promise I’m not mad about it, felt so “wait, you didn’t mention that ONCE before?” that makes me wonder just what Handler was trying to do here, actually. Was he trying to write a coming-of-age story? Was he trying to comment on our present era? On family life?
I put the book down and I couldn’t answer any of these questions. I looked at Dani – one of the people who loved it, by the way – and just shrugged. For the few moments of glory that the book held, the rest of it just felt like a mess. A mess that was already slipping away from my memory.
Rating: 2 out of 5. This may be a personal failing of my own, I’m willing to accept that – but where most books, I sink straight down into them, this one I skimmed across the surface of, occasionally bouncing into the water but never actually getting below the very top. There are flashes of brilliance (it’s Daniel Handler, come on) but mostly the thing is just a misguided, jumbled mess. A premise that had such promise turned out to be a near-shipwreck of a disaster. What a bummer.