book review: the mystery of Daniel Handler and the echoing Basic Eight

The Basic Eight by Daniel HandlerThe thing I don’t understand about Daniel Handler (known, in children’s literature, by his pen name, Lemony Snicket) is why, with such intelligence, wit, and charming turn of phrase at his disposal he would choose to write about nothing.  There is so much something in the world it would seem hard to me to avoid it, but many modern authors do so quite well.  Another that comes to mind is Julian Barnes in “The Sense of an Ending” — his writing is chillingly beautiful, and frighteningly hollow.

I remember listening to the audiobooks of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” many summers ago on a road trip.  I’ll admit, I love dark comedy, and dark comedy for kids seems, if nothing less, apropos.  Kids take things way too seriously (at least I was a kid who did).  But there was some niggling feeling those books always left me with that I just couldn’t place.  “The Basic Eight,” much older, much darker, and much more funny (I don’t mean slyly humorous, I mean laugh-out-loud-in-awkward-public-places funny), sharpened that feeling and crystallized it into diamond: hard, cold, and made, essentially… of nothing.

The Basic Eight toast

The reason I couldn’t place the feeling before is that it wasn’t a feeling, it was the lack of a feeling.  It was that hollowness again.  “The Basic Eight” is a cavernously empty work of fiction.

And I remember thinking that about so many of the christian-girl and Georgette Heyer romance novels my mom used to let me read when I was growing up:  Empty.  Dissatisfying.  Fluffy.  Drivel.  But what’s different about Daniel Handler and Julian Barnes is the weight of the subject matter.  It’s not fluff.  It’s heavy; it’s deep and it’s broad and that’s why I called this book cavernous, because the larger a hole is, the more obvious it is.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian BarnesBut why does it matter?  Does a book have to be about something?  If you’re going to make fun (at least in Handler’s case), why not make fun of nothing?

Some might argue here that what he’s making fun of is teen sexuality, statutory rape, school massacres, and kids killing kids, but I actually think he takes those things more seriously than fiction (often the kind targeted at teens) which capitalizes on those elements for their tear-jerk value.  During the time I was reading this book I was listening (like the rest of America) to Serial, and the juxtaposition was unsettling not in it’s divergence, but in the similitude of the teenage “characters” reactions to being involved with a murder, despite that “The Basic Eight” is a comedy and, in typical Lemony Snicket fashion, completely ridiculous at points.  But all that’s an aside…

Daniel Handler

The problem is exactly what I said earlier:  that there is so much something in the world.  The purpose of stories is to parse out what that something is.  The situations, the lives, the events, the people (especially the people) around us are full of so much raw, unadulterated meaning that we can’t process it in that form, it has to be given to us in the form of a story.  So to tell a story that means nothing is, essentially, to tell a lie.  Because there are no true stories that mean nothing.  And the “truth” of a story is not in its relationship to actual events but in the meaning it lends to the lives it touches.