The Carnivorous Carnival: Book 9 in a Series of Unfortunate Events
by Lemony Snicket
Published by HarperCollins
286 pages, 2002
Better Than Paper Cuts
Reviewed by David Abrams
Even after reading nine volumes of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, I'm still trying to figure out which part of me enjoys the books the most: the nine-year-old inner child who had an unnatural predilection for morbidity (for example, one of my favorite Sunday School lessons was the Crucifixion, particularly when they got to the part with the crown of thorns and the agony of the nails), or the 39-year-old outer child who still prefers the glum and gloomy (clouds dark with rain, Bergman films, picking my cuticles 'til they bleed -- that sort of thing).
The kid in me loves the fact that nothing good ever happens to Snicket's trio of plucky orphans: Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, left parentless thanks to a house fire prior to the opening of Book One. The kids attract bad luck like black shirts attract dandruff and I, for one, appreciate the militantly anti-Pollyanna stance. Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) has created a world conspicuously void of sunshine, lollipops and puppy dogs and even if the occasional lollipop does turn up, it's likely to have a coating of lint-fuzz from the pocket of the winter coat you last wore in April (precisely the day when you stuffed the half-sucked sucker into the pocket, thinking you'd save it for later that night). If I'd had the Snicket books 30 years ago, they would have been my gospel of gloom. I probably would have replaced that bedroom poster of Joan of Arc burning at the stake with one of the Baudelaire orphans in the clutches of evil Count Olaf. (Don't let me kid you, my childhood wasn't all gothic horror -- I also had a poster of Barry Manilow ... but that's another story for a different day.)
There's been a rather longish wait for The Carnivorous Carnival to appear (not, however, as long as the one for J.K. Rowling's next Harry Potter book, which is due to hit bookstores, I think, in 2008). It's been 13 months since the publication of The Hostile Hospital and fervent fans like yours truly who were eager for its doleful delights had only two choices: reread the series or administer a series of paper cuts on the webbing between the fingers using the sharp edge of a page from Franz Kafka (assuming we'd already read the Kafka as well).
And what was Mr. Snicket/Handler doing in all that time we sat around bleeding between our fingers? Besides writing Carnival, I regret to inform you he was also penning the screenplay for the big-screen version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, due in theaters next year at this time. I further regret to announce that Barry Sonnenfeld (the gentleman responsible for Men in Black II) and Jim Carrey (the gentleman responsible for How the Grinch Stole Christmas) will be responsible for this movie as well. Fans of the books may now begin administering paper cuts laterally across their wrists.
I could be wrong (and I hope I am), but big-screen Lemony is a disaster waiting to happen because the pleasures of the books aren't necessarily found in the plots, most of which fall into a predictable formula, or the characters, most of whom are no deeper than your average paper cut. No, what really distinguishes and elevates A Series of Unfortunate Events is the impish manner in which Handler juggles language and narrative. He plays with words the way some cats play with bugs crawling across the floor -- batting them back and forth with happy cruelty before bringing them to an end with a squash (in the cat's case, a heavy paw; in Handler's hands, a period). Puns, literary allusions, elaborate verbal pranks -- you can practically hear Handler giggling as he pecks away at the keyboard. Undoubtedly, the cinematic Snicket will fail to capture that wonderful wordsmithery.
As an adult, I like the fact that I can take a break from reading doorstop-heavy novels full of characters in troubled marriages, financial ruin and poor health, by sitting down with a swift, light book like The Carnivorous Carnival which begins with the Baudelaires trapped in the trunk of Count Olaf's car and ends with half the cast of characters falling into a pit of hungry lions. In between, Violet, Klaus and Sunny must disguise themselves while working alongside Olaf at a carnival run by fortuneteller Madame Lulu. There are the usual strokes of bad luck -- the answers to the mysteries of what the initials V.F.D. stand for, and what really happened to the children's parents remain tantalizingly out of reach -- and there's the usual dash of close-calls and squirmy peril, especially since the orphans must work in such proximity to Count Olaf. But, as always, the joys of text are to be found in the elaborately constructed sentences which decorate what's rapidly becoming a particularly Snicketian style. Take this passage, for instance, when the orphans are searching Madame Lulu's tent for clues to their mysterious heritage:
One of the most troublesome things in life is that what you do or do not want has very little to do with what does or does not happen. You might want to become the sort of author who works calmly at home, for example, but something could happen that would lead you to become the sort of author who works frantically in the homes of other people, often without their knowledge. You might want to marry someone you love very much, but something could happen that would prevent the two of you from ever seeing one another again. You might want to find out something important about your parents, but something could happen that would mean you wouldn't find out for quite some time. And you might want, at a particular moment, for a crystal ball not to fall off a table and shatter into a thousand pieces, and even if it happened that the crystal ball did shatter, you might want the sound not to attract anyone's attention. But the sad truth is that the truth is sad, and that what you want does not matter. A series of unfortunate events can happen to anyone, no matter what they want, and even though the three children did not want the flap of the fortune-telling tent to open, and they did not want Madame Lulu to step inside, as the afternoon turned to evening at Caligari Carnival, everything happened to the Baudelaire orphans that they did not want at all.
The Carnivorous Carnival rolls along with such wink-nudge prose and even though the first half of the book feels a bit padded with exposition (at 286 pages, this is the longest Snicket so far), it all turns crashingly good at the end in a scene of such cliff-hanging torture that true disciples will immediately reach for reams of sharp-edged paper as their succor until the next volume is released. | November 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.