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After Harry Potter, the Laundry

Why Potter Rocked Solid and A Series of Unfortunate Events Crumbled

By Mary Ladd

I started this review on my 38th birthday, July 31, 2007, Harry Potter's 17th birthday as a matter of fact. Our shared birthday (with Ahmet Ertegun as it turns out) really tickles my fancy. I've recently seen the latest Harry Potter movie (#5), read the final Harry Potter book (#7) and read the Lemony Snicket finale in A Series of Unfortunate Events (#13).

Both Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter have been quite the phenomenon in regards to children/adult cross-over fiction. The Snicket series ended late last year but fans are still debating its awesomely disappointing ending. Last weekend however, Potter prevailed. J. K. Rowling pulled off a touching and exciting end to her unprecedented series.

Happily, I predicted all the major plot points, (Dumbledore's exit plan, the seventh horcrux). But I didn't predict the skill with which these elements would be rendered. I'm not comparing Potter to Wuthering Heights, by any means. These are kids books, after all. But the architecture of the entire narrative was skillful and the characters bloomed with earned heartbreak, including the evolution of both heros and villains Rowling obviously cared about. And because I cared about Severus Snape myself, I'm very pleased Rowling had the chops to pull off his finale all while making Harry's finale believable too. Because, had she failed, the groan of disappointment would have been global.

Comparatively, the ending for the Lemony Snicket books was a dismal failure for most fans. Oh, a critic or fan here or there tries to defend it. For example, Dominick Evans makes a good effort to explain why the last book, The End, concludes by simply letting the characters drift off across the ocean, not having solved any of the book's elaborately constructed mysteries: the disappearances of the Baudelaire parents, the disappearances of their best friends, the disappearances of their new friends, resolution of any of the clues...nada.

Evans argues that the ending is, instead of a lazy exit, a stoke of tough love. "All dreams don't come true; all questions are not answered." Evans says of a happy, resolved ending: "This is not truth."

Truth? To begin with, we surely underestimate children to believe they have no understanding of true life and day-to-day outcomes, of disappointment and tragedy. Why insist on annoying them with such reminders in their pastimes? Besides, we teach kids many things in early development that are not adult truths; but are instead development truths. Physically, we do this to help then learn to navigate life one step at at time. Intellectually, we do this because one has to know the rules in order to later understand how to artfully break them.

What's essentially true about the whole presumption of an omniscient narrator (as Rowling uses for Potter) in the first place? Art asks us to compromise many mundane truths for beauty (and for fun). The Snicket books are no more a representation of the truth than Harry Potter. The End is just an antihesis to a happy ending. A flip side of the same lie. So why mislead kids with another lie under the offensive guise of a higher truth?

Evans argues: "If any lesson can be taught by reading The End and the entire series, this is it. Life truly is a series of unfortunate or fortunate events depending upon what you make of them. Once you realize that, you can move on and actually experience life."

In an interview, Snicket's author, Daniel Handler, claims, tongue-in-cheek, that the outlook of the books is probably Jewish ("I think there is something naturally Jewish about unending misery, yes."); but Evans' argument above sounds more like a description of Buddhist enlightenment. However, even a Zen monk would have a hard time recasting the Baudelaire tales as "fortunate, depending on how you look at it." These books are gloomier than the California foster-care system in the novel White Oleander. Now that was a series of unfortunate events. Maybe we should have kids read that book instead.

And what if you accept this idea of letting go of a resolution? A zen proverb says, "After epiphany, the laundry." Trouble is, here we get no epiphany, just dirty laundry. The a-ha moment never arrives. And real enlightenment involves acceptances of both bad and good cycles in life. This series is deliciously bleak, and therefore no remedy for a happily ever after. It's the same story, just seen through the negative filter. Because in real life some mysteries are cleared up. Sometimes you are rewarded for all your efforts.

Portions of Lemony Snicket argue that no story truly has an end. Is this a philisophical lesson? Or just lazy storytelling? The premise may be a juicy literary concept mulled over when reading short stories by Raymond Carver, but kids have not yet learned the concepts of climax and denouement; so why should they be forced to learn that these ideas are antithetical to real life? If you can't accept an arbitrary beginning and end, you can't tell a story. Because without that premise, a story just doesn't exist.

Evans states, "There are many questions which go unanswered. How many of life's questions go unanswered?"

Well, I'm glad you asked, because certainly not all of them.

And if all of them must go unanswered, why bother playing the mystery game over 13 installments? That's the horcrux of it. If you set up a mystery and then admit at the end that "it is impossible to solve any mystery," you've just sucker-punched a bunch of kids. You've just set up a game of 52-card pick-up--the lesson being: sometimes life is cruel and you have to pick up 52 cards your older brother just flipped out across the floor.

Nothing but a cheap trick.

But does this series even want to be a real mystery? That's the biggest mystery. There are some who claim there are legitimately hidden clues in the book: the baby's identity, whether the Baudelaire parents are still alive, is Lemony the father, uncle, sister, brother. But the convolution of Lemony's identity feels more Chinatown than Encyclopedia Brown. It's possible that the mystery is larger than these novels. Other materials released with the books seem to suggest this ("The Beatrice Letters" and "13 Shocking Secrets You'll Wish You Never Knew About Lemony Snicket"). But that smells more like a marketing campaign than a literary series.

Maybe the game is Handler watching us twirl around in circles looking for clues. An interviewer asks him if there was an ultimate message in the series? He responds,

"That's not really how I operate. I think perhaps the books posit that one should behave well in dire circumstances--not because it will help you, but for its own rewards. But it's not as if I sat down and thought, 'What important message can I bestow on the youth of the world?' I think that's sort of Jewish too. I prefer the model of Talmudic thought in which people can spend a lifetime arguing over a single paragraph of Talmudic text, compared to the Catholic model in which a text is explained for you by someone on high."

Unfortunately, this is a lazy answer (and it doesn't bode well for a well-conceived narrative resolution). If you don't know what your message is, don't ask me to figure it out.

Does this book want to be a finely tooled mystery or a lesson on reality? It doesn't really matter. Because it fails as a didactic lesson, it fails as literary device, it fails as a Zen or philosophical statement and it sacrifices its narrative which also ultimately fails.

Any tough lesson the Snicket series attempts to teach kids is a lesson they're better off learning on their own. Which is coincidentally one of the last lessons of the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore could have planned a big knowledge dump with Harry, who then could have become overwhelmed, acting impulsively without proper contemplation. Harry Potter was forced to discover his truths slowly on his own so he could learn his lessons deeply, personally.

I'm a student of Zen; I was an English major. I know all about suffering, letting go, and literary tragedies. (I read the whole tragic Edith Wharton canon, for Christ sake; feggetabout Zen koans). The Snicket series just doesn't pull it off.

As a student of some scrumptious tragedies, I also could have accepted a more depressing, yet entirely fitting, resolution for the Harry Potter finale. But I accept the comfort the end provides to adoring kids seeking hopeful ends to their narratives. However, there are still plenty of hard-knock lessons in the book: you'll never transform the Malfoys of this world, not with all your kindnesses; you'll never be able to undo the suffering of an abandoned child who will become an evil lord as a result; and you'll never be able to give Severus Snape his true love. All very heartbreaking lessons. Why, why, why is this all so, we ask. This is exactly the type of question we'll never get the answer to. At the end we can only unlock what's in the golden snitch. Rowling shows us what can be solved and what can never be solved. Handler throws out the sugar bowl with the bathwater.

J.K. Rowling: 10 out of 10.
Daniel Hander: 3 out of 10
(Consolation award for good use of literary references in a series and best romantic book dedications)

More on Lemony Snicket and A Series of Unfortunate Events

More on Harry Potter

What do you think about the end of Potter and Lemony?



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