As a book critic, I’d say that few authors have the unique voice and quirky prose-styling of Daniel Handler. But as a reader and super-fan of both A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the newer series—All the Wrong Questions—I am convinced that the ability to casually break my heart is a dark super-power held only by Handler’s alter-ego: the author/fictional character known as Lemony Snicket.
And even though I know he’s not real, I’m weeping about Lemony Snicket right now. In his new book, the last in All the Wrong Questions—Why is this Night Different From All Other Nights?— he’s really outdone himself.
Light Spoilers for All the Wrong Questions 4: “Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?” by Lemony Snicket.
At the start of each volume of All the Wrong Questions, there’s a little section in fine-print which posits the book you are about to read is really a file that Lemony Snicket has mailed to somebody in the fictional town Stain’d-by-the-Sea. In diving into each of the three previous books, I never asked myself about the significance of those little sections, but instead asked “what’s going to happen this time?” And as Snicket would say, that was the wrong question. I should have been asking this: how come Lemony Snicket had to mail his accounts of what happened in Stain’d-by-the-Sea? Is there some reason he could never go back there?
To say this final installment in All the Wrong Questions is a masterpiece could indicate I’m overstating things a bit. The word “masterpiece,” is a word here which means “a common enough compliment to ascribe to a work of art that I shouldn’t use, but I’m going to anyway, because I just don’t care and I love this book so much.” So, why is this book a masterpiece? Why is this Lemony Snicket book different from all other books before it? The short answer is simply that Daniel Handler has taken what a children’s novel can do with moral ambiguity to a whole new level of complexity, and torn apart our expectations in the process.
13-year-old Lemony Snicket has faced down several mysteries in his time in Stain’d-by-the-Sea. In the first book, Who Could That Be at This Hour?, we were told this bizarre place was once a great, thriving town, home to the famous ink supplier Ink Inc. By finding certain octopi in a nearby sea, Ink Inc. became a kind of empire. But then the sea dried up, and the now-above-ground seaweed thrived and formed the mysterious and dangerous Clusterous Forest. In the final pages of Why Is this Night Different from All Other Nights? resident chemist Cleo Knight tells us the effects these events had on the town and how it opened up Stain’d-by-the-Sea to the entrenchment of desperation and villainy:
“Plenty of things happened,” she said. “It became harder to find octopi, so Ink Inc.’s ink became weaker and fainter. It made articles in the newspaper seems less certain, and people who read it became uncertain themselves.”
The reason I love the prose of Snicket/Handler is partially because dialogue like this operates with an impressive trifecta: it hits you on a humorous rhythmic level (words repeated), on a hyperbolic content level (where are the octopi?!), and also on a philosophical level (people lose faith in their journalists, lose faith in themselves.) In short: it’s the kind of brilliance that doesn’t come across as a brilliant. In his semi-autobiographical book Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut claims “The beginning [of a good joke] challenges you to think…the second part of a joke announces that nobody wanted you to think.” Lemony Snicket novels are like the opposite: things that seem like jokes at their beginnings, but end up making you think by their ends.
Lurking around the periphery of the three previous books is the legend Bombinating Beast, a creature who we only truly encounter as a very precious—and sought after— statue which sports its likeness. Throughout all the episodes of All the Wrong Questions, readers have been asking repeatedly “will the villain Hangfire get his hands on the Bombinating Beast statue?” when we really should have been asking “Is the Bombinating Beast a REAL monster?”
While The Series of Unfortunate Events novels had death right at the start of the adventures, All the Wrong Questions has held off with any kind of death until this specific installment. Part of what makes Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights? so different from its predecessors is the inclusion of death almost right away. Sure, it sets up a nice locked-room mystery, but it also creates a different brand of gloominess which these books have yet to face. Like the last book in the Harry Potter series, death is everywhere here. Plus (massive spoiler impending) Lemony Snicket himself pushing a certain someone into the clutches of…
Actually. I’m not going to tell you. Lemony Snicket HATES it when people ruin the endings of good books, so I’m not going to tell you who Snicket pushes and what he pushes them into. But I will say, it’s the kind of event that changes the character forever. We never really believed that All the Wrong Questions would be a series that highlights the infamous “schism” referenced in A Series of Unfortunate Events, but it totally hints at it, and in fact, is probably more reference-heavy to the previous series than the three books before it. Even Count Olaf is casually name-checked!
The reason why Why is This Night Difference from All Other Nights? is a masterpiece is a bit of a spoiler too, because the overall mood of the books shifts considerably thanks to the events Lemony Snicket experiences. “Experiences” is a word here which means “he has ridiculously terrible things happen to him and he does some questionable and terrible things himself and no one is truly satisfied.” No one that is, except the readers. In describing his affection for the confounding character of Ellington Feint, Lemony Snicket has this to say:
“I’d learned long ago, as everybody learns, that the earth turns around something called an axis, which is a word for a line that goes down the middle of something. It’s not a real line. The axis is imaginary, a line that only exists in your mind. I have never understood it until that moment in the train compartment. Ellington Feint was a line in my mind running right down the middle of my life, separating the formal training of my childhood and the territory of the rest of my days. She was an axis, and at that moment, and for many moments, afterward, my entire world revolved around her.”
Like many other readers, I feel the way about these books that Lemony feels about Ellington Feint. There’s a before and after from when I read A Series of Unfortunate Events, and there’s a delightfully dark autobiographical map unfolding across my sentences whenever I get to review an installment from All the Wrong Questions. These books, and this last one in particular are a line running down a portion of the lives of the readers who love them. Our worlds occasionally revolve around them, if only for a fleeting moment. Which makes this one being the final installment so much harder to deal with. I’m afraid I can’t cope until the next Lemony Snicket book. It scares me how much this novel for young readers has changed me. But if there’s one thing the protagonist of this book taught me, it’s that sometimes the best thing to do about fear is to “get scared later.”
Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights? is out now from Little Brown.
Ryan Britt is an essayist, a fiction writer and a critic. That last word here means “though he writes and analyzes various pieces of artsy media, it doesn’t mean this kind of criticism isn’t autobiographical.” He is the author of the essay collection Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, which will be out from Plume Books on 11.24 of this year. Ryan is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.