I have just finished reading The Penultimate Peril, Book the Twelfth in A Series of Unfortunate Events by the inestimable Lemony Snicket. This is a completely subversive book.
First of all, there is no way this can be considered children’s literature. In tone, in style, and in philosophical underpinnings, this book is the equal of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I’m not joking. Snicket has extended his marvelously snarky Victorian narrator’s voice into something that is meta-post-modern wonderful, a word that here means “full of wonders.”
The basic “mirror” motif, the convoluted sentences, the convoluted plotting (which was always circular and inconclusive and in any case grinds to a halt, about which more in a moment), the moral uncertainty: by the time Snicket reaches the end of this, the longest of the books, it all has spiralled out of control and dissipates like the smoke of a building burning to the ground.
I was about to type “moral ambiguity,” but it occurs to me that morality in this book is not ambiguous. The cartoon-character versions of good and evil which have sustained the series still operate, but they are reflected back and forth in Snicket’s moral mirrors so often that we end up looking at multiple images, splintered and reassembled into scary chimeras of truth. The climactic sequence, absolutely thrilling in its breathless action, takes a while to register, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny take action against the forces of evil in ways that are in themselves questionable, and there is one moment in the ultimate penultimate peril which is truly shocking. The children’s acceptance of a kind of Realpolitik is disturbing, but then again, dear reader, have we not spent the previous eleven books wishing they would just kick butt? And now, finally, they have.
I say “finally” because it is my belief that this is the end. I know Mr. Daniel Handler, Snicket’s spokesperson, has been quoted as saying the last book will come out in the fall of 2006, but I have reason to believe he’s lying. He has always hinted there would be thirteen books in the series, and there are: twelve in the history of the Baudelaires, and the Unauthorized Autobiography which came between Books Eight and Nine. The location of this book, the Hotel Denouement, is an in-joke, of course; the denouement of a play always comes at the end. Technically, as Snicket points out, the denouement is not the very end, but also technically, the denouement is the untying of the knots of the plot, which signally does not occur in this book. “Unravelling” would be a more apt translation in this case. Snicket throws out enough hints and clues and observations to lead us to a gorgeously complex denouement, but he does not do it. I believe he has chosen to leave all the loose ends loose.
The title of the book, Penultimate Peril, suggests that there is one more volume to come, but this book reads like a finale. The ambiguity of the Beaudelaires’ situation, of VFD, of Olaf and Snicket and all the rest, is reflected (!) in the ending, which at face value is just another cliffhanger, but which I believe is the final ending. Do we get answers? Do we get a happy ending? Do we get an unhappy ending? No, no, and no. And that’s Mr. Handler’s joke.
A brilliant book. I shall be very disappointed if there is another. Unless of course he does tie up all the loose ends. Bastard.