book review: the end
November 18, 2006
When I first read The Bad Beginning, I was struck not by the pluckiness of its young protagonists–though they are certainly so–or the largeness of the type–for it is quite large–but by the effervescent wit that flowed forth from every page of Daniel Handler’s (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket’s) morbidly hilarious prose. For thirteen (!) volumes now, I have followed the darling Baudelaire orphans from one improbable scenario to the next, each ornamented with a bewildering array of puns, obscure literary references, shocking deaths (really), and shadowy conspiracies and bound by the Baudelaires’ search for their missing (and presumed dead) parents and their struggle to escape the clutches of the vile Count Olaf, a villain so wicked that he sports a unibrow. It was with great interest, then, that I sat down to absorb the final book, The End, published in September by Harper Collins.
Faithful readers of the series will have noted the increasing trend towards the darker and more disturbing aspects of the series in the latest volumes, and this is no exception. Though full enough of the odd humor that we have come to expect–indeed, some of the most rib-tickling moments in the series are to be found here–the going is treacherous here, each page building towards a conclusion that is surprisingly serious and mature, bordering even on the profound, and deeply felt. So, not much to joke about on that end of things, though the plot’s trappings remain, as ever, endearing and engaging.
Much of the book takes place on an anonymous island overseen by the mysterious “facilitator” Ishmael, a man with more than a few secrets to hide, inhabited by a curious community of uniformed and single-minded colonists who seem quite content to subsist on a diet of seaweed salad and ceviche (eaten, of course, with runcible spoons), and littered with all manner of…things. As several island dwellers ominously note, “everything washes up on these shores sooner or later.” They mean it. Taking care to remain cordial to avoid “rocking the boat,” which is all that anyone on the island seems concerned with, the Baudelaires investigate strange goings-on, wrangle with their “moral compass,” finally conclude their dealings with a tragically desperate Olaf (permanently), meet a few friends like Kit Snicket (!), and finally learn the truth about their parents and V.F.D., a truth that may prove somewhat disappointing depending on your expectations, but not, I think, on recognition of what Mr. Handler is working towards.
Indeed, it is the “great unknown” that makes the series, and life in general, all the more interesting. One might expect that all secrets would be revealed here, but the book wisely leaves elements of central mysteries up to the imagination, a faculty that can operate unconstrained by such bothersome things as reality. What was that giant question mark on the radar screen in The Grim Grotto? We will never know now, and so we must go on wondering; it could be anything, or nothing. Or perhaps something.
What is clear, though, is that the book’s tries hard–too hard, perhaps–to be meaningful and significant in its message of hope in a world that can seem dreadfully hopeless, especially considering all the unfortunate events that can befall a person. The ending pages are idealistic and fantastical, true, but appropriate for a trio of children so conspicuously noble as the Baudelaires. They also shroud A Series of Unfortunate Events in a veil of timelessness which defies attempts to pin its contents to any one era. At the same time, it stands as a hopeful fable acutely aware of the cynicism and darkness that we face all too often in this modern era, all of which is beautifully expressed in this short passage from page 316:
“‘The night has a thousand eyes,’ Kit said hoarsely, and lifted her head to face the villain. The Baudelaires could tell by her voice that she was reciting the words of someone else. “‘And the day but one; yet the light of the bright world dies with the dying sun. The mind has a thousand eyes, and the heart but one; yet the light of a whole life dies when love is done.'”
Count Olaf gave Kit a faint smile. “You’re not the only one who can recite the words of our associates,” he said, and then gazed out at the sea. The afternoon was nearly over, and soon the island would be covered in darkness. “‘Man hands on misery to man,'” the villain said. “‘It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can–‘” Here he coughed, a ghastly sound, and his hands clutched his chest. “‘And don’t have any kids yourself,'” he finished, and uttered a short, sharp laugh.
Not exactly light, is it? As a fantasy for adults, The End it’s a masterful success. For children, less so.
Thank goodness I’m not a child, then.
–D. S. W.