The Slippery Slope: Book 10 in a Series of Unfortunate Events

by Lemony Snicket

Published by HarperCollins

337 pages, 2003





Unfortunately, It's Excellent

Reviewed by David Abrams


Why do I hunger after Lemony Snicket's episodes in the Series of Unfortunate Events in the same way a vampire's mouth waters when he sees a lovely, exposed neck? Why am I such a captive fan of the tale of the Baudelaire orphans fighting the odds (and the cruel, nasty, venomous, villainous villain Count Olaf) to untangle the mystery behind the fiery deaths of their parents and the meaning of the initials VFD? Why do I take such delight in these dark, cheerless, cold-as-refrigerated-liver tales?

Am I a perverted pessimist? A morose, moping miscreant? An angry, antagonistic, acrimonious, acerbic, acid-reflux-suffering anarchist?

Well, yes, but that has nothing to do with my love of Lemony.

No, I devour these books like dark chocolate (with just a hint of arsenic) because they are some of the smartest, wittiest, compelling stories in any bookstore -- be it in the children's section or the adult fiction area. I suck deep the marrow of the Snickets because nowhere else do I find the same intricate wordplay, clever puns, off-beat characters and thrilling Saturday-matinee escapades all rolled into one volume. Then, too, I'm awfully fond of Brett Helquist's pencil illustrations which show the influence of Edward Gorey in their visual humor. Simply put, Lemony Snicket turns me on in the linguistic-erotic way that all good literature should.

Thus it was with thumping heart and a slight constriction of the throat that I opened the tenth volume in the series, The Slippery Slope, and began reading.

A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called "The Road Less Traveled," describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn't hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is now dead.

Like a dead poet, this book can be said to be on the road less traveled, because it begins with the three Baudelaire children on a path leading through the Mortmain Mountains, which is not a popular destination for travelers, and it ends in the churning waters of the Stricken Stream, which few travelers even go near. But this book is also on the road less traveled, because unlike books most people prefer, which provide comforting and entertaining tales about charming people and talking animals, the tale you are reading now is nothing but distressing and unnerving, and the people unfortunate enough to be in the story are far more desperate and frantic than charming, and I would prefer to not speak about the animals at all. For that reason, I can no more suggest the reading of this woeful book than I can recommend wandering around the woods by yourself, because like the road less traveled, this book is likely to make you feel lonely, miserable, and in need of help.

"Help!" I cried, upon reading the word help. "I've started laughing and I can't stop!"

Nobody came to my rescue and so I had no choice but to read the rest of the 335 pages, hoping I wouldn't choke on my own tears of laughter. But then again, I'm admittedly a bit perverse in my outlook on life.

For the uninitiated -- the un-Snicketed portion of our population -- I feel nothing but pity. You don't know what you're missing. But if you someday feel compelled to read a delicious series of doom and gloom, here's a brief User's Guide.

1. Fourteen-year-old Violet, thirteen-year-old Klaus, and baby Sunny, have been on their own ever since their parents died in a mysterious house fire (...or did they?).

2. Count Olaf (the Snidely Whiplash of the series) has been pursuing them ever since, hoping to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. He's aided in his nefarious deeds by an oddball troupe of henchpeople, which includes the hook-handed man, a pair of white-faced women and Esme Squalor, Olaf's girlfriend.

3. To get close to the wary orphans, Olaf uses a variety of disguises -- all of them cheap, gaudy and obvious.

4. Along the way, the orphans encounter several helpful people: guardians (who all meet a death worse than fate), well-meaning adults (who are usually dispatched with a stroke of the pen by book's end) and kind, sincere children (who likewise are often whisked away by the last period of the last sentence). Moral of the story: if a Baudelaire orphan wants to be your friend, try to make yourself unavailable ("I'm washing my dog on Saturday night" often does the trick).

In The Slippery Slope, no dogs are washed, but there are copious amounts of hairsbreadth escapes from the jaws of danger, crosses and double-crosses, forks converted to crampons, a swarm of snow gnats, and the titular icy slope. The book picks up where Volume Nine (The Carnivorous Carnival) left off: Klaus and Violet are hurtling toward almost certain doom in a house trailer which has come unhinged from Olaf's car as he drives up a steep mountainous road. He's got Sunny in his clutches and an evil gleam in his eye. Suffice to say, Klaus and Violet are not smashed to smithereens and they spend the rest of the book trying to rescue Sunny from a mountaintop lair. Along the way, there are some surprise appearances by characters Lemony fans have met in books past.

It's little use going too much further into the specifics of the plot because, let's face it, most of the books follow the same formula: Olaf pursues, the Baudelaires evade, Olaf manages to get his mitts on one or all of the orphans, said orphans manage to slip out of said mitts.

The delight in The Slippery Slope and others in this series is found in the way the author jauntily jots his jokes across the page. In addition to humorous stuff about Mr. Robert Frost, there's also funny frippery about Nietzsche, casserole dishes, Verbal Fridge Dialogue, a tedious Snow Scout Alphabet Pledge and, on page 107, a pun at the expense of George W. Bush.

A Series of Unfortunate Events is ostensibly aimed at young readers -- those leaving behind the cotton-candy years of preadolescence for the licorice-tasting teen years -- but I often wonder how much of Lemony Snicket goes over their heads. I can tell you that this reader -- about 30 years past the recommended reading age -- finds the books a gas, a word here which means "the giggly stuff the dentist administers just before he unsympathetically yanks out your teeth" not "the foul odor which results from eating too many beans at dinner."

May you, too, meet a happy death of laughter and tears. | November 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.