Monday, April 27, 2015

Oh, The Poor Bird: Daniel Handler's We Are Pirates

Daniel Handler's novel We Are Pirates was published in February. (Photo by Christopher Seufert)

We have left the land and have gone aboard ship! We have broken down the bridge behind us, nay, more, the land behind us! Well, little ship! look out! Beside thee is the ocean; it is true it does not always roar, and sometimes it spreads out like silk and gold and a gentle reverie. But times will come when you wilt feel that it is infinite, and that there is nothing more frightful than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt itself free, and now strikes against the walls of this cage! Alas, if home sickness for the land should attack thee, as if there had been more freedom there, and there is no "land" any longer!
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Aphorism 124) 

There is little I look forward to more than a new book by Daniel Handler. Handler remains most famous, and rightly so, for his Lemony Snicket books (the gothic-themed 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events, and most recently his noirish, not yet completed, 4-volume prequel series All the Wrong Questions). The highest compliment I believe can be paid to a contemporary children's book is that deep and warm-hearted regret that you are too old to have read it as a child – and the Snicket books generate that for me with every page. Handler's voice as Snicket is uniquely clever, passionate, and intimate. As explosively unique as Unfortunate Events were, the new series – told from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old Lemony Snicket – are perhaps even stronger: as morally complex, starker in their themes, and even more often laugh-out-loud funnier. When the final volume of ATWQ is published by Little, Brown and Company this fall, I will return here and say more. But for now, let me say this: Handler knows how to tell a story, and his books – perhaps like the best of literature, children's and otherwise – are lessons on how to hear one.

In February, Bloomsbury Press published We Are Pirates, Daniel Handler's first straight up "adult" book since 2006's Adverbs. Adverbs is a difficult book to describe but an easy book to love. It was hands down my favourite book of that year, and rather than try to explain why, it was much simpler just to tell my friends to read it themselves. (I gifted more than a half-dozen copies of Adverbs over the next two years.) We Are Pirates shares a lot with his earlier book, and though it isn't likely to displace Adverbs either in my heart or my bookshelf, I nonetheless relished every page.

There is a cleverness to Daniel Handler's writing that I know must seem precious and indulgent to some readers, even as it further endears him to me. For this reader at least that playfulness never rises to the level of self-consciousness that it knowingly flirts with. What manifests in the Snicket books as a knowing address to a reader displays itself in We are Pirates and Adverbs as a painterly, poetic/prosaic impressionism. A single paragraph from Adverbs often left me almost literally breathless, regularly stopping me in my reading tracks and compelling me to read it aloud, just to hear the words pronounced. Handler's often labyrinthine, sometimes unpunctuated prose invites decoding, but it also refuses it; you may want to pull at the threads of a paragraph and lay it out before you in a straight line, but you also know that the result would be a lifeless husk of the original.

We Are Pirates offers a more clearly defined set of characters and a more straightforward plot than Adverbs. Our central characters are the Needles of San Francisco, an upper middle-class family with upper middle-class problems: Phil Needle, a hapless radio producer struggling to invent the Great American radio documentary; his wife, the aspiring painter Marina; and their neglected 14-year-old daughter Gwen, who is, well, fourteen years old. True to Handler's reputation, young Gwen's character is the book's most compelling and, even as events overtake her, the most real. We meet Phil Needle, as our unnamed and often unreliable narrator tells us, "on Independence Day, two hundred something-something years since America had freed itself from British rule and just a few days after the pirates had returned from the high seas, at a barbecue commemorating that troubled time." Who the titular pirates are, and what the substance of this troubled time may be, is what the novel is about.

On the one hand, We Are Pirates is a small story about the inner lives of sad, distracted people who want nothing more than to live lives other than their own. It is also, as that first sentence reveals, a story about America and of our times: a tragicomedy tale of escape and rebellion, chooses and consequences, freedom and its painful costs, and of the ways that fantasy and reality conspire together to create the worlds we all live in.

One feature of Handler's works that holds across the board is the blunt refusal of morality tales. Just desserts, the cruel getting punished and the virtuous landing on their feet, innocence rewarded for its own sake: all the stuff of conventional children's stories and Disney fairy tales are regularly deconstructed, and often flat out mocked, called out for the dangerous lies they are. The first book of the Snicket series, A Bad Beginning, opens with a caveat that would be as appropriate for We Are Pirates: "If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle." While no doubt this is all the more striking in a story aimed at children (and it is also the lesson the novel's heroes, the young Baudelaire children, keep learning, along with the fact that grownups are just likely to be incompetent as evil, as likely to be kind as distractedly unthinking), it is all the more powerful in a novel aimed ostensibly at adults, in their adulthood:
One narrative, about the hated people in our lands, is that eventually they get what’s coming to them. This is what prisoners have told themselves, the afflicted and the fallen, since the first asshole walked among us, kicking infants and click-click-clicking a ballpoint pen. But Peggy did not fall into a vat of anything ravenous or burning, not then and not ever. 
Though seemingly set in our time, We Are Pirates is recounted as if from a distant future – our narrator reminds us regularly of certain things that were true "the time that this story takes place" (a feature also of the Snicket books, it should be noted) – that frames it both as a telling, and as a story. We Are Pirates is, in short, a story that takes stories seriously: the stories we tell to ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves. After a small rebellious act of shoplifting, Gwen's parents sentence her to visit a nearby nursing home, where she spends time with Errol, a cankerous old man who also longs to escape from his reality. Errol, suffering from Alzheimer's, has a problem with his memory, and he fills up the gaps in his mind with the stuff of his favourite books – books filled with tales of piracy, high-sea adventures, thievery and swashbuckling bloodshed. Gwen's adolescent sense of self is as shifting and ephemeral as Errol's, and she quickly bonds with the old man, finding a kind of kinship in their unstuck identities. Together, the two – along with Gwen's new friend, the equally disaffected Amber – plot their escape, including an elaborate plot to hijack a ship docked at the pier, kidnap Gwen's boy-crush, and parrot on shoulder, set to sail away. From everything. 
"What do you mean, pirates? There are no pirates now."
"There's an equivalent," Amber said. "We have it in our heads." 
Stories of young people running away to become pirates are nothing new – and if such stories compel you, I can also heartily recommend Ted Naifeh's graphic novel Polly and the Pirates (Oni Press, 2005), also coincidentally set in San Francisco. But when that story is told by Daniel Handler, you can expect things to get a bit more hairy. Though, when it happens – and reality comes to unravels the fantasy, and the adolescent dream logic turns to nightmare (there is a singular moment when Gwen and Amber become teenage versions of Thelma and Louise) – it still comes as a painful and rude shock, no doubt as much for the characters as for the reader.

There is an immersive quality to Handler's adult fiction that is unlike most novels I have ever read. The words and sentences have an hypnotic, stream of consciousness rhythm, and the narration has the feel of the inner voice that accompanies experience. The telling (that is itself framed as a kind of invention or even a lie, is told by an anonymous party crasher at the Needles' home who himself has no established authority to tell the tale) will shift dream-like from mind to mind, without ever leaving his third person narrative. Along with our characters, we mishear dialogues, misread signs, half-hear muffled song lyrics. (The only other recent novel I've read that accomplishes it with the same success is Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular.)

There are some stories that ask you to build their world along with them, and some (like We Are Pirates) that pull you along, will-less – like a wind pushing you from behind, or sweeping you out to sea. Some characters are named long before we ever meet them, if we ever do, and others hang around for pages without being given names at all. The novel operates on these IOUs, and as even as you invest in one, you don't know if it will be among the ones that will be eventually redeemed. You open a file for it: enigmatic Eleanor, the assistant that recently quit on Phil; the burn on Gwen's leg; the unnamed boyfriend that the woman sitting next to Phil on the ill-fated flight to L.A. is flying to meet. Gaps in the telling that beg to be filled in, but you don't fill them, not by yourself because the story begs you to wait, to keep the file tentatively opened, unfolded on the desk of your reading mind.With We Are Pirates, Daniel Handler offers a unique and powerful story that begs the reader to wait for promises to be fulfilled on the telling's own time and own terms. And, fortunately for us, it pays out.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.    

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