rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)
[personal profile] rymenhild
"You will be happier not to read the grim story I have written," announces Lemony Snicket in the first paragraph of Series of Unfortunate Events #12: The Penultimate Peril. Snicket (sometimes confused with his agent and public representative, Daniel Handler) has made similar claims at the openings of each of his books, but this is the first time the claim is true. PP is a very fine book. Snicket is at the peak of his powers, to use a phrase meaning "the author's quality of writing can only go downhill from here". Nevertheless I would have been happier not to have read The Penultimate Peril. In fact, I nearly cried myself to sleep last night after having finished the dreadful tale.

I'm not actually exaggerating that much.

In previous installments of the Snicket saga, we learned about a terrible schism that occurred twenty years before the main narrative action. This schism divided an organization called the V.F.D. (for Volunteer Fire Department) into two parts. One half of the group consists of noble people going about in silly disguises in order to fight fires and to protect the world's knowledge from burning. The other half of the group, led by the dastardly Count Olaf, also uses silly disguises, but it is a Fire Department in the Fahrenheit 451 sense of the term. The two halves have competing mottoes. "The world is quiet here," say the noble people, describing their ideal place, a peaceful, meditative, knowledge-filled library. "Fight fire with fire," say the villains, expressing their desire to destroy things in pursuit of their aims.

Both mottoes are conspicuously absent from The Penultimate Peril. This is because between right and wrong, like identical twins with equally unfathomable expressions, are no longer easy to distinguish. The Hotel Denouement, where the main characters, the three Baudelaire children, find themselves as the action begins, is supposedly the last safe place and the last real library left after years of conflict. The world is not quiet there, however, as both villains and noble people have converged upon the hotel in order to complete their honorable or nefarious plans. Reflections, false dichotomies, binaries that turn out to be trinaries, and literal and figurative smoke and mirrors disguise what is actually going on at the Hotel Denouement. Somewhere beneath the smoke and beneath the mirrors, the moral compass that has been guiding the Baudelaire children and the books written about them begins to go haywire, and where there's smoke...

As usual, Snicket (well, Handler) supports his story with a series of arcane but crucial intertextual references. One noble woman quotes 'a great man' (actually Martin Luther King, Jr.) on the subject of right and evil. "Is he a member of V.F.D.?" Klaus Baudelaire asks her. "You might say that," she responds. Giuseppe Verdi provides most of the soundtrack to The Penultimate Peril, and a close reading of a passage from Richard Wright serves as the book's unbearably sad coda. Snicket's been training his readers in rhetoric and literary analysis since Book 1. I'd be interested to know whether the nation's middle schoolers are catching on.

I absolutely recommend The Penultimate Peril to all comers, but I, like Lemony Snicket, will provide a warning. The ghastly misfortunes afflicting the Baudelaires have gradually stopped being funny and become genuinely horrifying. If you want to read something uplifting about the triumph of the human spirit, you would be much better off reading another book.

ETA: As usual, Amazon provides us with reviews that entirely miss the point. One reviewer, writing about the series as a whole, complains, This series is well, pretty undescribable. It's hard to say whether they are excelltent [sic], or just garbage, but I guess it would depend on who was to read them. I strongly suggest these books for the younger readers, it's really not for older teens. The rambling of the author can get a bit old, but you also learn a lot of interesting words (and frankly loads of useless information) from them. Some of the books may seem pointless, maybe they are, but they're for kids, so if you're a young adult or an adult reading them, remember that.

Dear reviewer,

The interesting words, "useless" information, and layers of subtext and backstory which you call "rambling" are the best and most important parts of the Series of Unfortunate Events. The surface plots are merely window dressing, to use a term referring both to adornments that make windows look pretty and curtains that keep undesirable villains from peeking into one's house and spying on one's sugar bowl usage patterns.

Sincerely,
Rymenhild
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rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)
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