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The EndReview - The End
A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Thirteenth
by Lemony Snicket
HarperChildrensAudio, 2006
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Oct 24th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 43)

Readers who have read the previous 12 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket will approach The End with considerable anticipation. We want to know what becomes of the Baudelaire children, whether they discover their parents who were thought to have died in a fire, whether they escape the clutches of Count Olaf, whether they get to meet again with the Quagmire triplets, and what VFD stands for. Maybe most of all, we want to know whether author Lemony Snicket will carry through on his prediction that we regret reading these books. Is the future of the children really as bleak as he said it would be? It turns out that things could be worse, but part of their maturing is that they have to relinquish some of their hopes.

The End takes many of the traits of the previous books in the series and brings them to a crescendo. We get a whole new cast of characters whose names have cultural allusions. On an island, they meet a girl named Friday. The most powerful man on the island is called Ishmael, and other people on the island are Mrs. Caliban, Erewhon, Dr. Kurtz, Ms. Marlow, and Rabbi Bligh. Some references seem very obscure: one character is called Omeros, and an Internet search reveals that this is the name of a book length poem by Derek Walcott from 1990, the name of a biotech corporation and the name of a beach in Australia. The exclamations of little Sunny often sound meaningless, but a little research shows that they are often sly references to something real. She says "negihama" in a discussion about seafood, and it turns out to be a yellowtail and scallion Japanese roll. She says "fustianed" when Count Olaf says he is no worse than another character, and she is using the word "fustian" to refer to bombastic speech. When someone talks about a terrible possibility, she says "yomhashoah," referring to the Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah. There are not references that most young readers will get, but the more enthusiastic ones may be inclined to do some research so they can be in on Snicket's joke.

As with the other books in the series, Snicket draws attention to doublespeak and nonsense. Many of the characters request others to do what they want, adding "I'm not going to force you." It becomes clear that nevertheless, these are forms of coercion. Even better, characters often repeat "It depends on how you look at it," and this is revealed as a way of squirming out of an honest admission. Snicket's attention to the duplicitous use of language is wonderful.

From an ethical point of view, the book carries forward one of its most satisfying themes, the moral compromises and corruption of the children. They started out as victims, but in their efforts to escape Count Olaf, they have stolen, lied, destroyed valuable property, made deals with people of suspect moral character, and they have caused the death of one of their own friends, albeit accidentally. In this final episode of their story, they have become so desperate to survive that they contemplate forging an alliance with Count Olaf and plotting against someone whose motives could be perfectly benevolent. At points, it is no longer clear that they are on the side of good at all, because they have become so embroiled in lies and intrigue. Ultimately, they pull back from this abyss, but it is clear how simple it would be for them to cross the line to become just as bad as one of the villains in their saga.

Death is a persistent theme through the whole series, and in this last work, two major characters die. These deaths are both treated seriously and compassionately, and this is a wonderful aspect of Snicket's writing. Without giving too much away, when a character who has harmed another, and death faces them both, there is a strange moment of tenderness and honesty between the two, and then one recites a poem by Francis William Bourdillon. This is certainly unusual for a children's book.

Another sophisticated aspect of the book is its readiness to consider what it means to be the end of a story. Plainly, life goes on for at least some of the characters, even after the last page, just as it existed before the start of the story. So inevitably to declare some point in their lives "the end" is arbitrary. As Sunny says, they are always "in media res." The storyteller has to draw a line around a complex reality to make the story possible. This also leaves open the door for Snicket to carry on the story of the Baudelaire children even after The End.

Snicket probably has done as much he could with this series of books about the Baudelaires. At several points in the series he risked becoming stale, yet he managed to keep it fresh and entertaining. It is hard to think of a comparable work in children's fiction in recent decades -- the Harry Potter series is hardly a serious rival for linguistic inventiveness, moral depth and sly social commentary.

The unabridged audiobook read by Tim Curry is nicely produced and, as ever, performed with conviction and enthusiasm. The little songs by The Gothic Archies are as pleasing as ever.

 

 

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2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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