we are young and stupid and raised by wolves
(this is not real life. these are not pictures of me. I am 24 years old and a woman and passionate about politics and fanfiction and, as far as you are concerned, I only exist online.)
I’m contemplating the whole series, attempting to look deeper for underlying messages and issues I would have missed in junior high and early high school. There’s quite a lot.
First, I’ve been analyzing them more closely as children’s literature and what set them apart and made them so successful in the genre and wider market. Apart from the wit and pretty damn unique style, I think the black comedy and emphasis on how life isn’t fair — bad things may just keep happening to children who don’t deserve it, and there is absolutely no guarantee of a happy ending as a reward after all the tribulation, as so many books go — drew a lot of positive attention from people (including kids) who appreciated the honesty. So many kids’ books aren’t honest like that.
More specific details: I had this epiphany as I was listening to the second book, I think. He was doing his thing again where he laboriously explained a slightly atypical word with a humorous, very context-specific definition (“‘oblivious’ here means ‘not aware that Stephano was really Count Olaf and thus being in a great deal of danger’”), and I suddenly realized that rather than being condescending toward children’s intelligence, this was Lemony Snicket’s private fuck-you to the publishers and editors with whom he’s likely had experience telling him that he can’t use certain words in children’s books because they’re too difficult. It’s marvelous.
The absurdism, which increases through the series, bothered me a lot even the first time around, and I remember it really pushing me over the edge into disapproval and disappointment with the ninth book (The Carnivorous Carnival). I’m readjusting my reaction now, even in advance — it still drives me crazy, especially in the scene in the first book when the kids are trying to appeal to Mr. Poe. At first they mention more trivial things, like doing a lot of chores, even though Olaf is taking them to extremes (and this killed me, because it’s so very true — kids don’t always know where the line is between appropriate and inappropriate, and when they try to make a case for why something is wrong, they choose the wrong arguments and it fucks everything up…yeah, personal experience). But when Violet makes the most crucial argument — “He hit Klaus! Look at the bruise on his face!” — of course Mr. Poe chooses right then to start coughing and doesn’t hear them. And apparently he never notices the bruise. Neither does Justice Strauss.
And it’s so stupid and unfair it’s painful, and I could easily get angry and frustrated and want to distance myself from the series. But I’m making myself see now that this is the real world too, with some twists. It’s that fucking unfair. I see it as a metaphor for the bruises that aren’t in plain sight and go just as unnoticed by adults who should know about them.
This applies too to the assortment of adult characters that pop up in every book. There are a few standard types he uses: the well-intentioned but fatally flawed and also rather dim (Mr. Poe, Aunt Josephine), the well-intentioned and more intelligent but still handicapped (Justice Strauss, Uncle Monty, Charles). And then of course there are the evil characters, who so far are Olaf and his theatre troupe, but I know in the next books will include Nero and Esme. I think these tropes, though some may be caricatures, serve a real purpose that resonates with readers, especially kids who have a damn hard time communicating with adults and getting them to understand how important some things are.
Now in the fourth book, I’m further intrigued because this is the first book that breaks the structure of the usual guardian-home the Baudelaires end up in for the first three books. This is the first of the far more odd and unlikely situations they’re placed in — a lumber mill. So now there are all sorts of (unaddressed, true) issues about child labor and, dare I say, unfettered capitalism. Sir does whatever the fuck he pleases, including paying his employees in coupons and giving them a stick of gum for lunch and no breakfast. Phil’s leg is mangled by equipment on-site (not to mention the total lack of training the Baudelaires received before starting work — I work with big oil/gas companies, which are manic now about health and safety, so it kinda takes my breath away), and it’s unclear yet whether he’s even taken to a hospital, but two other employees offer to pitch in with their coupons to get a cast for him. So absolutely no health insurance or workers’ comp.
I readily admit I may be reading too much into that, but whatever, it’s in the news and relevant to me, so I’m going to be eyeballing it.
This is all relevant to how my interest in children’s lit has been stirred recently by Maurice Sendak’s death. Now let me tell you I have not read a single one of his books, including Where the Wild Things Are. But it’s on hold now for me at the library, along with a few of his other ones, and I may get more depending on how those go. And I have an itch to re-read North to Freedom (which is so damn relevant to FC, anyway, and breaks my heart in so many ways every time I read it).
But I put those books on hold after reading this obituary for Maurice Sendak, which is a beautiful, informative thing. And it made me think about how the best children’s books are not sanitized, but deal with terrors and the dangers they know are so real. I want to read more of those.