After finishing Daniel Handler’s (Lemony Snicket’s) The Bad Beginning I’ll admit some trepidation in jumping headlong into the rest of the series. If you’ll recall, The Bad Beginning most certainly holds up with time, and is also a decent book in general. I prefer it over a few novels I have read in the past year. However, the simplicity of the plot and characters worried me. I lent much credence to my remembering that The Bad Beginning is so clearly the worst of the Series of Unfortunate Events in an effort to push forward into the rest of the series. The worry is, of course, that I will rob myself of a fond memory of the series that probably most made me fall in love with reading. That Lemony Snicket’s wit will do nothing but grate upon my senses. That the predictability of the plot will so overwhelm me that I will grow to despise the books. That I will not be able to overcome a suspension of belief and genuinely have a distaste for every page.
So after 30 pages of The Reptile Room I was immensely relieved that Snicket had made me audibly chuckle a couple times with his naming of fictional snakes, including a warning by Uncle Monty to the Baudelaires that they “should not, under any circumstances, allow the Virginian Wolfsnake anywhere near a typewriter.” That joke is probably for parents who are reading these novels to their kids, but even still, a person may not get it at all. It’s a joke to Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) himself, and I liked it terribly.
It’s impossible for me to express just how much better The Reptile Room and The Wide Window are than The Bad Beginning. They improve in every way upon the first novel, beginning first with Handler’s increased use of breaking the fourth wall. He leaves tense situations to explain that he had to pause writing to go meet a friend who always demands that he not ever be late to their meetings. Unlike in the first book, his leaving the narrative itself is exquisitely timed and keeps the entire work feeling fresh. What becomes interesting is that he begins to tell his reader more than the generality of The Bad Beginning, which he warned would end poorly. In The Reptile Room, he tells you what is going to happen, who will do it, etc. everything except how the children will get out the situation. He begins to make Olaf more than just a figure that embodies evil. He is somehow a bit more nuanced. The book remains extremely simple, yet works significantly better than the first. I enjoyed the book the whole way through.
The Wide Window was not quite the level of The Reptile Room, but was nonetheless enjoyable. The most interesting aspect of The Wide Window was the guardian of the Baudelaires, Aunt Josephina. Josephina is fearful of everything in the world. It is not a simple phobia, but rather crippling, irrational fear of something such as turning on the oven, then wildly moves into even the fear of realtors (Handler somehow makes this an amusing plot point). While The Reptile Room continued the examination of unexpected death, The Wide Window ventures into the role fear plays in the nature of humans. Fear of things paralyzes people and makes them stay where they think it’s safe. Eventually, as Josephina shows us, it becomes easier to simply fear something irrational than move forward into becoming a meaningful person.
Nonetheless, the books all end the same, which is Mr. Poe yelling at Count Olaf to “Stop!” and telling the children that they are not allowed to pursue the Count. However, this is expected in what I believe the books to be: namely, full of postmodernisms, approaching New Sincerity. The ending is not really that important at all. What is taking place throughout the rest of the novel, both in plot and in themes, is what matters. The bow tie at the end is a ridiculous expectation.
All in all, both The Reptile Room and The Wide Window are marked improvements over their predecessor. While I was timid to return to the series after thinking The Bad Beginning could perhaps be a sign that returning to the series is a bad idea, I am now excited to keep moving forward through the books. A Series of Unfortunate Events is still interesting and fun to read.