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.

the clothes make the man

September 10, 2006

For the purposes of this essay, let us ignore the old maxim: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” While in figurative sense, as when applied to relationships, it can often be a valuable thing to keep in mind, in the literal sense I find that a book’s cover can indeed make quite a difference in the perception and even enjoyment of it.

Take, for example, Michael Crichton’s 2002 nanotech-disaster novel: not a particularly memorable read, but I still have fond recollections of the style of its pages. Specifically, each page was of a slightly different width from the one before it, cumulatively creating a distinctive “deckled edge,” as it is called, in the binding. While romantic notions of an embrace of ancient bookbinding traditions are dashed at the very first laughably serious sentences, the book’s aesthetic qualities remain an object of fascination; a form of art, if you will, that grants it a place on my bookshelf to this day.

On the other hand, my enthusiasm for the 2003 film The Matrix Revolutions is tempered somewhat by an astonishingly poor cover design. As you can see here, boneheaded executives over at Warner Bros. decided to make it a collage of the four theatrical poster designs, creating a nasty cut-and-paste effect that butchers the film’s–and the original posters’– formidable artistic qualities. It is fortunate, then, that the film itself does not suffer–at least not as obviously–from such carelessness.

The sharp contrast in the above works raises the question of how, exactly, the packaging should reflect the contents. Prey‘s page design is at odds with the book’s subject matter, creating an interesting contrast, though not necessarily a helpful one. Revolutions‘ design goes in a different, though still frustrating, direction, illogically ignoring what it ought to have featured prominently. Thus they both fail to cohere as a unit, the packaging being distinct from the product though they are inextricably linked together.

It must be noted, however, that the feel of a book need not come from intentional design decisions. Several weeks ago, I purchased an as-yet-unread copy of Within a Budding Grove, the second (of seven) volumes in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past–volume one is proving exceptionally difficult to get through. It was a copy that I had spotted before in a delightfully traditional shop selling all manner of used books, and at 55 years old the book has seen far better days. But, then, that only adds to its charm.

Proust’s writing is itself is a throwback to eras, societies, and language that have long since fallen into disuse, and through this battered volume I am reminded of all that in a tangibly real way. ‘Tis a difficult thing, achieving a connection to the past, and for all that Marcel Proust wrote so much to convey on the meanings of time and memory, I think he would be glad to have his work read in this pleasingly anachronistic format. For Proust, shiny new copies lose their luster. (I must not forget, though, how beautiful Renoir’s “Path Through Tall Grass” is each time I pick up my Barnes & Noble copy of Swann’s Way.)

In capturing the essence of Proust, my aged copy succeeds where our first two examples failed, blurring the line between product and package to a remarkable degree but also, and most importantly I think, doing so without recourse to tricks or attempted “ingenuity.” It simply is, and that is enough.

–D. S. W.

one_percentToday sees the release of a much-hyped expose of policies at the forefront of the Bush Administration's War on Terror, Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin's wonderful White House Briefing gives a pretty thorough rundown of its contents here and here, and based on what I've read of the first few chapters, it looks like a real winner. The titular doctrine is the supposed core of American foreign policy, taken from Vice President Cheney's position that any threat to national security that is at least 1% probable must be considered a virtual certainty for the purposes of planning a response.

Suskind focuses heavily on the conflict between the notables, policymakers in the public spotlight such as Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, and the invisibles, those in the CIA, FBI, and other agencies who are actually responsible for combating terrorism and developing related strategies. As politicians, the notables tend to spin everything positively even while harboring significant doubts about the way things are progressing. The invisibles can only resign themselves to the task at hand, leaving little room for anyone outside of the government to really understand things as they are.

In all it's a deeply critical look at a White House that has proven one of the most secretive and aggressive in this nation's history. As a moderate, I try very hard to avoid unfair criticism of either political party's policies, but in the face of such overwhelming evidence as is presented here and elsewhere it is extremely difficult to find much to praise about the current adminstration.

–D. S. W.