Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

Because I am currently working on my PhD in English through the University of Alberta, I get to make up lots of excuses to read books that I might not have otherwise read. Part of my dissertation is on Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman's Why We Broke Up, a book about the break-up of two teenagers named Min Green and Ed Slaterton. Min is writing Ed a novel-length letter and is dropping off a box full of items on his front doorstep: an umbrella, bottle caps, movie tickets, and more (much is accumulated over the course of a relationship). And she's telling the story of how these items contributed to their break up. When I was working on a dissertation chapter about the book, I ordered a box of books by both Handler and Kalman. Although I've pretty much exhausted the Lemony Snicket publications (one of the first book reviews I ever wrote was for the first three books of A Series of Unfortunate Events), the only book I'd ever read that was authored under Daniel Handler's real name was Why We Broke Up. So I loved putting some other books in an Amazon basket, receiving the shipment in the mail, and then reading a pile of great books.

One of those books was The Basic Eight, which was Handler's first novel, published in 1998. I don't know what I was expecting - Handler writes in such a varying voice in all of his publications, from A Series of Unfortunate Events to Why We Broke Up - but The Basic Eight went above them all. What a book! It had something in common with Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as well as some of the feeling of E. Lockhart's new We Were Liars. It's something to do with the privilege, the absent parents, and the intelligent, caring, precocious teen characters that links these books together. 

Protagonist Flannery Culp is recounting her senior year of high school, journal entry-style, and what a disastrous year it was. She begins on the wrong foot when she travels to Italy for the summer, and sends a regrettable series of letters and postcards to Adam, a boy at her high school. The last one, scribbled on the back of a postcard, is the one that begins all the trouble during her senior year, and it's also the one she wants to take back. She writes to him, "Listen what my letters have been trying to tell you is that I love you and I mean real love that can surpass all the dreariness of high school we both hate, I get back from Italy late on the night of the Saturday the 4th call me Sunday. This isn't just the wine talking" (5). When she gets back home, Adam doesn't call. But everyone knows that someone has been sending him crazy love letters all summer. And Flannery isn't about to admit to that.

Flannery is building up to telling us about the night in October when everything changed, when the tabloids started calling her a murderer, and began inviting her friends on day time television programs to talk about Flannery and her mental state. It's a hilarious book at times; devastating at others, especially as Flannery begins to crack, and her memory splinters. There's a Fight Club/The Bell Jar revelation near the end of this brilliant book, one that puts everything in question, and complicates Flannery further.

Then there are the stylistic choices that Handler has added. He ends some chapters in an SAT-style format, with questions interrogating the content of Flannery's writing, and a vocabulary list of words she's used. Handler asks readers to think critically about Flannery's account, and to start questioning her veracity long before Flannery attempts to. I loved The Basic Eight. Next on my Daniel Handler reading list: Adverbs and Watch Your Mouth.

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