A Series of Unfortunate Events: Books Four and Five

And the wait for more of A Series of Unfortunate Events is over. You see I have been collecting these books as I go, buying them two at a time. However when I moved from Fort Worth to Arkansas I found that there were no Half-Price book stores available to me. The neat thing about Half-Price books is that I can walk in and buy the hardcover editions of these Lemony Snicket books for only five bucks a piece. Quite easy to justify. The point of this story is to tell you that I simply don’t read these until I own them, but my owning them has become a complicated process and as a result I have had to go to… the library.

But nonetheless, after finally coming to terms with the fact that I have no money to my name and even if I was still living in Fort Worth it wouldn’t be any wiser to spend the five bucks there that it would be to spend it on Amazon or something, I swallowed my capitalistic need to BUY, BUY, BUY, and just borrowed a copy of the books. But I wasn’t happy about it, mind you. I like having an interesting library of sorts in my living quarters. Oh well.

As I read A Series of Unfortunate Events the pleasure I get comes mainly from discovering all the little references that Handler (Snicket) puts in the books that no child could possibly understand. Clearly he intended for 24 year olds with a passion for revisiting books to reread them. The Miserable Mill and The Austere Academy are not lacking in these references, and so far are actually the best of the books. Yet what is becoming the most interesting is what Handler is critiquing in these novels. Perhaps I am just not familiar enough with good children’s writing, but I was not aware that children’s stories were so layered with meaning beyond the plot and simple themes such as friendship and overcoming adversity. In The Miserable Mill and The Austere Academy, however, Handler turns his sights on much more interesting topics that are clearly meant for the parents who would be potentially reading these stories to their kids.

The Miserable Mill is, of course, the part of the series where the Baudelaire orphans are watched over by a Lumber Mill and Count Olaf gets involved and has a plan that is foiled in the end. Not the point. When I read the reviews of these books that talk about how repetitive they are, I just want to nudge the person and tell them that means they are missing something. These books aren’t about the story, they are about everything but that. The Miserable Mill sees the children raised by the faceless master of a corporation that is wholly and completely inseparable from his Mill (A criticism of corporations being understood politically as people). The plan enacted by Olaf is his being in cahoots with a Dr. Georgina Orwell, who hypnotizes Klaus to make him an unthinking “yes, sir-no, sir” worker who responds only to the word “lucky” because he is “lucky” to be working (wink-wink). That’s what’s going on underneath the surface of the novel along side the repetitive scams by the faceless corporate master on his employees. The Miserable Mill was quite fun to read, as the themes were so interesting to see in a children’s novel.

The Austere Academy became quickly an indictment of the education system, with a helpless and bumbling school administrator taking the lead role in the children’s troubles. The clever work of this novel is two-part: One, the novels all so far have been mired with death, never happening off page or unexamined. In this way, Handler really wants to make known everyone’s mortality, in Austere Academy breaking the fourth wall to tell his reader that they, too, will die one day. Two, the Principal himself: Nero. He is a hapless leader of the school, concerned moreso with his own performances of the violin and thinking himself a genius than actually running the academy. This is a play on the Roman Emperor Nero, who was known for composing poems and songs and making people play them before finally stepping into the spotlight himself and conducting his own nightly performances.

Both books begin to take an interesting turn in that Count Olaf falls a bit to the wayside. Yes, he is there, but he is more of a background character, leading a reader to attempt to make the connection between those who aren’t Count Olaf or on his side and those who are helping him. Both end up being just as damaging in the system that oppresses the orphans, so who is more evil? Olaf for admitting that he is trying to hurt the children or those are aren’t trying to but make it easy for them to be hurt? Either way, A Series of Unfortunate Events continues to impress, tipping its hand a little, but in the best way it could. Handler succeeds completely in his criticism and themes.

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