Shiver Me Timbers: Daniel Handler’s Novel for Adults
By Diana WagmanApril 6, 2015
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler
SOMEHOW MY KIDS MISSED the Lemony Snicket books, the 13 volumes that comprise A Series of Unfortunate Events about the misadventures of three orphaned children, written by Daniel Handler under the nom de plume Lemony Snicket. Despite being initially criticized for its dark themes, the first book, released in 1999, was instantly and wildly popular. I know my son or my daughter was given one as a birthday gift, but for no particular reason, it never made it into the pile for bedtime (twisted and depressing sounds good to me). Therefore, I picked up We Are Pirates as a Daniel Handler virgin. I, the dutiful reviewer, promptly read — in chronological order — the three previous adult titles he published under his real name, and I thought, perhaps not surprisingly, this man has a way with young protagonists, students, and difficult teens. He’s good at the family dynamic, the parent-child negotiations, the subterfuge and awkwardness of adolescents who must coexist in a world with adults.
No wonder he was so successful as Lemony Snicket. The Unfortunate series has won multiple awards and spawned a movie, a video game, a card game, and a board game; a TV show for Netflix is in the works. It makes sense then that his first novel, The Basic Eight — published in 1998 before the Series of Unfortunate Events books — is likewise in the realm of nasty and demented young adult fiction. He was finding his strengths, as first-time novelists do, and The Basic Eight is terrific teenage angst turned violent in a twisted, funny, and surprising story. Flannery Culp, protagonist, has endured the worst year in the history of high school, which included being bullied and gossiped about, suffering unrequited love, and dealing with a dangerous jealous rival. Then, Flannery finds herself accused of murder, but she doesn’t remember killing anyone.
In Watch Your Mouth (2002), the protagonist, Joseph, is a little older, college-aged, but still nursing a youngster’s passivity. He goes home for the summer with his girlfriend, Cyn, who may or may not be sleeping with her father and her brother. Her mother is making a golem (a demon created from inanimate material) in the basement ostensibly for a theater piece, but possibly for more nefarious purposes. Watch includes a lot of sex, some of it incestuous, and a series of unfortunate and grisly murders. Adverbs (2007), a collection of short stories, moves in another direction. Each story is titled with an adverb (“Barely,” “Judgmentally,” etc.). A teenage boy yearns for his co-worker at the movie theater. An adult narrator remembers being 14 and pining for his big sister’s boyfriend. All of the stories deal with the hopelessly, powerfully, adverb-filled minefield that is love.
I am not tempted to dismiss Handler as glib, despite being sometimes wearied by his calculated ingenuity. The man is a clever, facile writer. His sentences bubble along, turning on a phrase, full of musicality and stylish repetition. I often laughed out loud while reading him. But binge-reading all of his adult work, I found myself grateful for the moments of plain writing and honest substance. Perhaps there could be more of these — at times I felt as if I were cutting through a jungle to get to the hidden treasure.
In We Are Pirates, once again the main character is a 14-year-old girl, Gwen, and, like most of Handler’s teenage protagonists, she is tossed about in the sea of her parents’ plans while much of the time being tethered to their sides. She cannot take the bus by herself, she is on a swim team she hates, and she goes to the pool each morning and practices while her father does laps right beside her. She chafes in perfect young teen naiveté at the restrictions placed on her and gets caught shoplifting in a classic act of “I don’t know why I did it” defiance.
Her father, Phil Needle (and he is always Phil Needle, never just Phil), is the story’s other protagonist. His failing business, midlife angst, and rocky marriage are intercut with Gwen’s troubles. He is grasping and ineffectual. He wants to be successful and make his wife and daughter proud, but somehow manages to screw it up every time. He doesn’t stand out in a crowd, but his private thoughts are hilarious — “Phil Needle tried to turn his cupcake into a Scotch on the rocks with the power of his mind” — and he harbors some unique observations about his daughter, his wife, his secretary, and especially himself: “He was a landlubber, with no sea legs even in his own house, and his daughter, his baby, was storming in the next room, unhinged, unanchored, and grounded.”
Yes, it really is a book about pirates. During the course of her punishment for shoplifting, Gwen is forced to care for an elderly sailor with a trove of pirate adventure books. The old man and his books inspire her to join the ranks of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, and she plots how to leave San Francisco for a life on the sea. Sailing references, ocean metaphors, and pirate-speak surface frequently throughout the book, forming a nicely nautical leitmotif.
Handler pulls this off without losing the story. I do wish Phil Needle’s character had surprised me; he borders on cliché, and I sometimes hurried through his sections, anxious to get back to Gwen. Even when our young heroine acts stupidly in an archetypal teenager way, her thinking is oddly perceptive: “Even the ocean seemed to be having a better time, waving and crashing and making cappuccino foam on the pilings. She was mad at the ocean, how stupid was that, jealous of its schedule and its freedom when she couldn’t even get a bus pass.” Her riffs on what is embarrassing (everything) and old people and her mother and the world around her are humorous and poignant and true, a perfect teenage trifecta.
Then Gwen meets Amber at the dentist’s office, and the book really sets sail, as Handler might say. Gwen moves way beyond standard teenage dissatisfaction to stealing a boat and becoming a real pirate with a dangerous, violent mission that is definitely not metaphorical. After school, she and Amber carry off a kidnapping by using rock concert tickets as bait and enticing their victim to meet Gwen in the park — ostensibly for pre-concert sex. It’s farfetched, but Handler manages to make Gwen and Amber grow realistically and as believably as possible from one fanciful event to the next. Their crew expands to include Cody, a boy with a mad crush on Gwen; Manny, a Haitian refugee; and Errol, an old man who, instead of teaching her any sort of lesson, feeds and encourages her mad ideas. It’s a bizarre and funny lark. Mom and Phil Needle’s search for their missing daughter (as well as their business problems) are more frustrating than funny, but, along the way, Phil Needle has some great musings and revelations about fatherhood.
Intermittently, an omniscient narrator — who appears on the side of the road at one point and at a party at another — comments on the story from some future time in which cell phones, fist bumps, and Facebook are things of the past. He is an awkward device that doesn’t totally gel, and his habit of randomly and parenthetically revealing each character’s future “(Gwen would go to Paris one day and think it beautiful)” has the effect of a wet match on the building of any narrative suspense.
Yet characters do die, and gruesomely. Two-thirds of the way through, the book takes too sharp a turn to port and what was lightweight — pirates more like Johnny Depp than Somali terrorists — suddenly becomes a vicious rampage. Handler likes violence. He likes it from unexpected sources and in unusual ways. His acts of violence are like his sex scenes — graphic, descriptive, juicy in all meanings of the word — and here Gwen is our leading perpetrator. Cody and the others follow her and commit acts that are shocking, but not totally necessary or warranted by the story. It is hard to believe that previously sweet and empathetic Gwen could turn so vicious and, to use Handler’s word, vulpine.
I, for one, could not imagine Gwen in Paris looking at the Eiffel Tower and thinking it simply beautiful even years after so much death and destruction on the high seas. In a book with no real foreboding, all the blood feels undeserved. Perhaps that is the point — the surprising, untapped violence in all of us, desperation and despair driving even the most meek among us to do anything to survive. In each of Handler’s adult novels, terrible and terrifying things happen without much effect on the perpetrator other than a niggling sense of disquiet. Handler’s uncomfortable worldview worked better in his earlier novels; this one calls out for a different and more satisfying way to get the characters where they need to go.
As it is, at the end of We Are Pirates, Gwen somehow seems less defined, not more. We know her not at all, despite being in her head for so long. Cody and Amber, the followers, are more sympathetic. I will say that Phil Needle makes a remarkable and wonderful discovery at the book’s end, but Gwen, despite a lovely and poetic final thought, leaves us only with the shivers.
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