Book review: “The Reptile Room: A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket

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Book review: “The Reptile Room: A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket

 

 

The Baudelaire orphans find themselves yet again in an unfortunate event — in the clutches of Count Olaf.

Midway through The Reptile Room, they are discussing the sad fact that the nefarious count wants to get ahold of their family’s fortune.

“And,” Klaus continued, “once he gets his hands on it, he plans to kill us.”

“Tadu,” Sunny murmured solemnly, which probably meant something along the lines of “It’s a loathsome situation in which we find ourselves.”

 

Tadu = “A loathsome situation”

That’s funny.

It’s always funny when Sunny has something to say.  As an infant with only four very sharp teeth, she says what seem like nonsense syllables, and author Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler, in real life) explains what she means, usually a fairly long, complex statement, serious and sober.

The sheer ridiculousness of it all — that Sunny could actually mean all that Lemony Snicket says she means, in this case, about “a loathsome situation” — is what makes this repeated trope in the Lemony Snicket books funny.

Such humor is easy to understand.  What I’m more interested here, though, is why Lemony Snicket’s 13 books about the ever-so-many Unfortunate Events that befall the Baudelaire children are so much fun for readers, particularly children.

 

Finally, someone nice

The Reptile Room, number 2 of the Lemony Snicket books, has to do with the children, whose parents died in a fire shortly before the opening pages of the number 1 book, finally, finally finding someone nice to take care of them.  It’s their Uncle Monty (full name:  Montgomery Montgomery).

The central event of the novel — and it’s here where the rubber meets the road — is Count Olaf’s murder of Uncle Monty.

“Now, wait!” you might well exclaim, upset at my giving away a major plot twist.  But think about it:  If you are going to read one of these Lemony Snicket books, you’ve got to realize that the Baudelaire kids are going to be involved in any number of unfortunate events, right?

What’s more unfortunate that the slaying of your Uncle Monty?

Lemony Snicket gives enough hints earlier in the book so, when the dreadful deed is discovered, the reader isn’t all that surprised.

Still, why is this novel funny?

 

Why do I smile?

No question, it is funny.  Lemony Snicket is droll and dry and constantly winking to the reader about all of these very sad happenings that end up, in some odd way, resulting in a lot of chuckles.

So why do I smile as I read about all the catastrophes that befall the Baudelaires?  Even laugh?  Why do so many kids find this novel and all the other Lemony Snicket novels fun?

Not only is Uncle Monty murdered, but the orphans are kidnapped, and they can’t, for the longest time, see a way of saving themselves.

A story like this shouldn’t be funny.  It should be scary and dreadful and horrific and spine-tingling.

So what gives?

 

Like cowboys and Indians

One reason, I think, is because the reader, whether 9 or 69, can tell from Lemony Snicket’s language that this is a Big Old Story.  It’s not real.

It’s pretend — the way, when my friends and I played cowboys and Indians back, in the Dark Ages when I was a child, I would fall to the ground when I’d been “shot” and proceed to “die.”

I wasn’t really shot.  I didn’t really die.  I was pretending.  I knew it, and my friends knew it, and that was why it was so much fun to play that game.

 

Like a cartoon, printed on paper

Another reason is that the unfortunate events in this book and the others are easy enough to get away from.  Just close the book.

Unlike real-life bad things that happen in everyone’s life, the bad things here are like a cartoon, printed on paper.  If you want, you can just tear the cartoon into little pieces and throw them in the garbage.

Indeed, there’s a cartoonish quality to everything in these books. Everything is exaggerated. The unfortunate events are so unfortunate and so frequent and so drastic that you can’t help but laugh.  No one’s real-life could be as unfortunate at the lives of these Baudelaire kids.

 

“Perfectly appropriate”

The biggest reason, though, is that, amid all the silly, cartoonish bad things going on in these pages, Lemony Snicket lets the reader, especially the young reader, know that he’s very aware that real bad things happen in the lives of everyone.

He doesn’t pretend that anyone’s life is all strawberries and cream.  In doing this, he honors the reader.  He shows respect to the reader.  Consider this example about the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf:

The story’s moral, of course, ought to be “Never live somewhere where wolves are running about loose,” but whoever read you the story probably told you that the moral was not to lie.  This is an absurd moral, for you and I both know that sometimes not only is it good to lie, it is necessary to lie.  For example, it was perfectly appropriate, after Violet left the Reptile Room, for Sunny to crawl over to the cage that held the Incredibly Deadly Viper, unlatch the cage, and begin screaming loudly as she could [to create a needed distraction] even though nothing was really wrong.

 

Waiting and regretting

In another place in the novel, Lemony Snicket addresses the reader on the subject of waiting:

Waiting is one of life’s hardships.  It is hard enough to wait for chocolate cream pie while burnt roast beef is still on your plate.  It is plenty difficult to wait for Halloween when the tedious month of September is still ahead of you.  But to wait for one’s adopted uncle to come home while a greedy and violent man is upstairs was one of the worst waits the Baudelaires had ever experienced.

And, a few pages nearby, Lemony Snicket writes about regrets:

One of the most difficult things to think about in life is one’s regrets.  Something will happen to you, and you will do the wrong thing, and for years afterward you will wish you had done something different.  For instance, sometimes when I am walking along the seashore, or visiting the grave of a friend, I will remember a day, a long time ago, when I didn’t bring a flashlight with me to a place where I should have brought a flashlight, and the results were disastrous.  Why didn’t I bring a flashlight?  I think to myself, even though it is too late to do anything about it.  I should have brought a flashlight.

 

“We all know…”

Adults often think they need to do everything they can to make children think that bad things don’t happen in the world.  (Even though, of course, children know that they do.)  Lemony Snicket is not the normal sort of adult, and he writes:

It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one.  We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up.  And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know.  It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is.  You foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try to readjust the way you thought of things.

 

“Our time in this world”

This is grown-up stuff — to recognize that someone we love will die, to recognize that we will die. “We all know that our time in this world is limited…”

This, I think, is at the heart of why the Lemony Snicket books are so good.  Why so many kids laugh and smile while reading them.  Why so many kids like them so much.

These books respect kids.  They respect that kids know the score.  They respect that kids understand that life has good parts and life has bad parts — and that it doesn’t help to pretend that the bad parts don’t exist.

Yes, the bad parts that happen to the Baudelaire kids are pretend.

But Lemony Snicket also lets the reader, especially a young reader, know that he understands that the reader’s life is filled with joys and sorrows, with pleasures and with pains.

He pays his readers that great compliment.  And, I think, the readers return the favor.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

1.7.19

 

 

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