Advertisement

Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) charts his process — as a writer, reader and for living life

A short-haired, unsmiling man in an open collar shirt
Daniel Handler, who has never fit the categories.
(Meredith Heuer)
Share

Book Review

And Then? And Then? What Else?

By Daniel Handler
Liveright: 240 pages, $26.99
If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission form Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.

To begin, a confession: I’ve never read much Lemony Snicket, neither the 13-book sequence “A Series of Unfortunate Events” nor the four-volume follow-up, “All the Wrong Questions.” This is not a matter of aesthetics but pragmatics. When my kids were young, their tastes ran in other directions: Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, “Twilight.” Although we read “The Bad Beginning” and perhaps part of “The Reptile Room” — I can’t remember — they never warmed to the author’s gothic sensibilities or allusive style.

This, I fully accept, represents a parental failing on my part.

Let me admit, too, that I had a little difficulty at first with “And Then? And Then? What Else?” by Daniel Handler, the writer behind the Snicket franchise — “aka Lemony Snicket,” he identifies himself on the cover. This has to do with the nature of the writing, which can feel diffuse before it grows into one of the enduring charms of the book. The reason? “And Then? And Then? What Else?” is a bit of a grab bag, starting in the middle and ending in the middle, while telling a series of stories that both connect and overlap.

That something similar might be said of the Lemony Snicket novels is the whole idea. Handler is skilled and nuanced as a writer, with a developed voice and point of view. He has never fit the categories, so why would we expect him to start here?

Advertisement
Book cover for "And Then? And Then? What Else?"
(Liveright)

As an example, there’s the question of form or genre. “And Then? And Then? What Else?” comes positioned as a memoir, but that’s not quite accurate. Neither is “craft book,” although there are a lot of notes on craft. More accurately, it’s what I want to label a process book, walking us through the author’s process as writer and reader. It is also a book that means to tell us how to make a life.

Handler gets at this from the outset: “What am I doing?” the book begins. It’s not a rhetorical question but a reflective one, and it opens a line of free association, of opinions and observations, that push back against our expectations. Yes, the author recognizes, we will have preconceptions; how, after all, could we not? Regardless of whether we’ve read the saga of the orphaned Baudelaire children, Handler’s reputation, the work he’s produced, carries its own cultural weight.

Lemony Snicket: ‘a strange writer in whom nobody took any interest’?

April 14, 2014

“I’m hunched over, headphoned,” he explains, describing himself writing on a legal pad in a cafe not far from his San Francisco home, “I look like a lunatic, which is likely the wrong word. It feels right, though.”

There it is, right from the get-go, a conditionality that might feel like a gimmick were it not also true to life. Likely the wrong word but it feels right? Here we get a glimpse of how Handler works. Throughout “And Then? And Then? What Else?” he highlights the tension between thought and feeling, the way we can infer something without fully knowing it. That’s a sensation familiar to every kid who reads “A Series of Unfortunate Events”: What adults are saying and what they’re doing are very different things.

For Handler, such suspicions didn’t disappear with childhood. Early in “And Then? And Then? What Else?” he recalls a party he attended where “real estate and traffic were the mandatory conversation topics,” all the boredom of the grown-up world. Eventually, he met a 6-year-old “and asked him what was up, in the hopes of a better conversation.” The child answered: “Last night I dreamed I was a horse.”

Advertisement

David L. Ulin had the idea for his pitch-dark new L.A. noir novel, ‘Thirteen Question Method,’ decades ago. But to write it, he had to live it first

Dec. 14, 2023

It’s an instructive anecdote, Handler insists, because children “generally have a firmer grasp on what is interesting to say.” By way of elaboration, he continues: “If you had to sum up lasting literature in a single sentence, you could do worse than ‘I dreamed I was a horse’ — prophetic dreams and animal transformation appear much more frequently in the old epics than, say, which neighborhoods have the best schools.” A perception of the world, in other words, as magical, as inexplicable, as full of wonder, fear and awe. Isn’t this the reason so many of us started reading? Isn’t that what we look for most when we pick up a book?

In “And Then? And Then? What Else?” (the title, fittingly, comes from Baudelaire), Handler returns repeatedly to this notion, whether he’s discussing his books or the details of his life. He is frank without being overly revealing and always seeks out some larger integration, a place where thought and feeling might intersect. As an undergraduate, he suffered from recurring nightmares, populated by ghost-like figures, “naked, bald, painted or powdered white.” The resulting sleep deprivation led to seizures, as well as hallucinations in which these characters began to appear in the waking world.

Or perhaps, Handler conjectures, “hallucinations” is not the proper word. “Nabokov,” he writes, “famously said that reality was ‘one of the few words which means nothing without quotes,’ and this was an idea that kept visiting, bringing me comfort and bliss.”

A mix of history, memoir and biography, this book reflects on how time, perspective and stories left unwritten can shape our view of the past.

April 24, 2024

What he means is that we never know anything, not truly, and that what we think of as the real world is just another construct, built out of our desires and preconceptions (that word again), as subjective as the angle of our minds. That’s the craft lesson here, and the life lesson also: Be curious. Accept nothing at face value. Why couldn’t the figures from his dream exist — an acceptance that ultimately frees Handler from their influence — even if most of us don’t see them?

Of course, to believe that requires a creative leap. That disposition, that openness leads Handler to an especially acute critique of the pieties of cancel culture, with its distrust of work that some might suggest is “problematic” — a word, he explains, that “describes the entire human condition, which is to say it describes nothing.” Given the subjects and scenarios of his fiction, Handler has found himself in the cross-hairs of various self-appointed cultural guardians on more than one occasion, but while he shares some of those details, that is not what interests him. Rather, it is the question of human personality, human weirdness, which is, as it has ever been, the only source of art.

“The peculiarities of individual works,” he argues, “come from the peculiarities of the individuals who make them. All these peculiarities — all of them — are problematic to somebody or other. Luckily, your own choices about preferences, dictating what you decide to read, are problematic, too.”

Advertisement

If that’s the case, “And Then? And Then? What Else?” counsels, why not opt for joy? This, Handler wants us to understand, is the most important component of storytelling — of reading and writing — and of living too. I keep thinking of the conversation with the 6-year-old at that stultifying party, and the unalloyed pleasure of both the teller and the listener as they discover in the moment their own shared humanity.

Last night I dreamed I was a horse. You don’t say. Tell me more.” That is everything and all we need to know.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion. He is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.

Advertisement