Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography
by Lemony Snicket
Published by HarperCollins
212 pages, 2002
Buy it online
The Mask Behind the Man
Reviewed by David Abrams
Daniel Handler has written a book that's so funny, I almost dropped it in the bathtub.
Of course, Daniel Handler didn't really write it, his alter ego, Lemony Snicket, did. Furthermore, there wasn't any water in the tub at the time
but that's beside the point. I'm here to tell you that Daniel Handler -- or Lemony Snicket or Seminary Lickit or whatever he chooses to call himself this week -- is one tickle-rib funny writer. Perhaps the funniest guy in print we've got these days (with apologies to Mr. Barry, Mr. Keillor and Mr. Buckley the Younger). Only trouble is, HarperCollins seems to think that kids are the only ones who'll chortle, snort and guffaw at Lemony Snicket's clever, pun-filled adventures of the ill-fated Baudelaire orphans. Why else would they shield A Series of Unfortunate Events from adult view by tucking it away in that back corner of bookstores -- the one filled with soft fluffy beanbag chairs and plastic slides and overly kind clerks? It's a travesty, I tell you! We adult readers who find ourselves in desperate need of a guffaw or chortle should immediately take up our pitchforks and torches and storm the nearest bookstore, demanding Equal Humor Rights.
But I digress.
For the uninitiated, Lemony Snicket is not a type of French dessert, but the creator of gleefully glum books about three terribly unlucky children who suffer fates worse than your average Dickens street urchin. If you find yourself in this category -- trying to order a lemony snicket off the dessert cart at Chez Maison, for instance -- you should immediately get yourself initiated. Stop what you're doing (unless you are a doctor performing open-heart surgery), and get your sweaty little mitts on A Series of Unfortunate Events, Volumes 1 through 8. You'll thank me later.
The books chart the misadventures of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire -- orphaned after their parents were killed in a tragic fire -- as they are sent to live with a succession of dimwitted relatives who, by book's end, always prove incapable of taking care of even so much as a hamster. All the while, the poor children are pursued by the dastardly Count Olaf (he of the shiny-dime eyes and unibrow) who wants to get his sweaty little mitts on the Baudelaire fortune. The books -- part Roald Dahl, part Saturday-matinee cliffhanger -- follow a predictable formula, but the fun is in the telling. Snicket, as the passionate transcriber of the Baudelaires' unfortunate events, writes as if he were overdosing on nitrous oxide. He delights in turning sentences inside out and upside down. He plays with words as if they were red rubber balls used in a spirited game of Red Rover, Red Rover.
Now, Mr. Handler as Mr. Snicket has capitalized on his snowballing success as the Hip Kid Lit Scribe of the Moment by writing Lemony Snicket: the Unauthorized Autobiography. With eight volumes so far -- from The Bad Beginning, The Hostile Hospital -- and another one (The Carnivorous Carnival) anticipated by a growing legion of saliva-dripping fans (count me among the drool-impaired), Mr. Han -- er, Snicket could well afford to sit back, take stock of his life, then write it all down for the world to read.
Unfortunately, this is not that book.
The Unauthorized Autobiography does not begin with the sentence "I was born," nor does it end with the phrase "I died and was buried in a pre-purchased cemetery plot overlooking my favorite view of downtown Chicago" (though, come to think of it, I know of few autobiographies which contain the phrase "I died"). No, my saliva-stringed reader, there really isn't much in the way of a Snicketian life here
at least, not in any coherent form.
The book is a jumble of letters, scraps of half-burned manuscripts, songs, newspaper clippings, ship blueprints, wedding invitations and blurry photographs which add up to little more than a fragmentary sliver of Mr. Snicket's as-yet-unfinished time on this earth. We don't learn the secret of his beloved Beatrice (the doomed lover he so often refers to in the books), nor do we decipher the enigmatic-but-significant initials V.F.D. (though they could stand for Valorous Farms Dairy or the Veritable French Diner). No, none of that.
What we do get is a mostly-funny knee-slapper of a book (I say "mostly-funny" because, as with all humor, you need some dull, dry spots to even things out; take Robin Williams' film career, for instance). The knee-slapping begins with the plain-brown-wrapper dustjacket which contains the following warning:
The book you are holding in your hands is extremely dangerous. If the wrong people see you with this objectionable autobiography, the results could be disastrous. Please make use of this book's reversible jacket immediately.
Turn it over and you get a brightly colored cover for a book about "The Luckiest Kids in the World" called The Pony Party!, written by one Loney M. Setnick.
I think you get the idea.
Will Snicket-impaired readers get full enjoyment from The Unauthorized Autobiography? Probably not. But then, who cares? We don't like impaired people anyway. I would suggest those readers get themselves repaired immediately by taking up pitchfork, etc.
For the rest of us, however, the book is the best kind of ha-ha literature out there. This is authorized, required reading -- no matter if you're eight, eighty or one of those silly, modest women who refuse to give their proper age (even to the clerk behind the counter at the DMV). | June 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.