Friday, July 30, 2004

Sophomore Slump

A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Reptile House, by Lemony Snicket, Read by Tim Curry, Listening Library, Inc., 2003

The second book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Reptile Room, opens with the typical recall of the events of the previous book and introduction of the characters. But unfortunately it also continues with Snicket's particular literary tricks, like interrupting the flow of the story to define things like "in this case, "ironic" means not really meaning what you say." It's less distracting in the print version, almost a charming tic, but in an aloud reading it wears rather quickly. He keeps it up throughout the book, and one thinks, dreading it, that he probably does the same throughout the series, now up to ten books.

Picking up where A Bad Beginning leaves off, The Reptile Room finds the Baudelaire orphans staying with a friendly yet quirky herpetologist relative, Montgomery Montgomery, who insists on being called Uncle Monty. His scientific endeavors prove fascinating to the children, as does his reptile room, filled with snakes and lizards, and his library. It seems, for a bit, as if happiness will settle on them at last.

This, of course, is a foolish assumption, one Snicket, like in his first book, warns us at the beginning not to expect. Snicket even goes so far to let us know in the third chapter that Uncle Monty will soon be dead, letting drop this piece of information on a little lecture on dramatic irony. And, as we knew at the end of the last book, Count Olaf returns to be the engine of the Baudelaire orphans' misery.

The reappearance of Count Olaf is rather disappointingly transparent, his scheme seeming to be something that could be overturned at any point. That it comes so early in the book is quite a point for irritation. He shows up in thin disguise, playing the role of Uncle Monty's new assistant, Stefano. The children see right through it almost immediately, yet they manage to not tell their uncle. Count Olaf lives in the house and despite there being at least two children who could bring it up with Uncle Monty, they never seem to get around to it.

There is also the annoying quality of having the character of Count Olaf always referred to throughout the book as Stefano. That grows more and more irritating as the book goes along.

Midway through the book, Uncle Monty grows suspicious of Count Olaf in his guise of Stefano. He comes to believe he's a herpetological spy out to steal his discovery of a new snake. Why Uncle Monty doesn't take the time to simply fire Count Olaf or kick him out of the house, I couldn't tell you. Instead, he merely tears up Count Olaf's ticket to join the doctor and the orphans on a snake hunting trip to Peru.

The plot twists in The Reptile Room are very much like those of first book, right down to Klaus spilling the beans early to Count Olaf, allowing him to adjust his plans accordingly. Uncle Monty subsequently meets the fate Snicket had earlier explained to us, apparently bit by a deadly snake, leaving the Baudelaire children again with the wicked Count. He plans to kidnap them to Peru, intent on killing them there, though why it wouldn't be easier just to fake poisonous snake bites for them as he had Uncle Monty, I couldn't tell you.

The children never get anywhere near Peru, so we're never treated to exactly what Olaf's plot would entail, as their inheritance couldn't go to him by any means. While malice could be viewed as motive for Olaf's action, we are told repeatedly that it's the Baudelaire fortune he is after, the deaths of the children only being a pleasant extra. It's just as well that most of his plot is ruined as it appears Snicket couldn't write his way out of this plot difficulty.

Instead, the book moves through to a denouement hinging on one bit of lucky chance after another. As they leave for the dock where the boat waits to take them to Peru, they get in a car crash with their legal representative, Mr. Poe. Violet is able to pick the lock on Count Olaf's suitcase and find the incriminating vial of poison and syringe. Count Olaf blatantly contradicts himself twice, arousing Mr. Poe's suspicions. And then Count Olaf and his hook-handed henchman, posing as a doctor, don't simply overpower or kill Mr. Poe, but flee when exposed. It's a rather disappointing round-up and somewhat dampens my plans to listen to the eight books out there now.

Tim Curry's reading is as satisfactory as it was in the previous book. The audiobook starts off with some pounding warbly song that sounds like a reject from a Robyn Hitchcock album. It's a bad beginning to a book that ultimately disappoints.

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