It’s striking, once you notice it, how important books and reading are in the work of Daniel Handler. Handler is probably best known as the inventor/alter-ego of Lemony Snicket, author of the sensational children’s book series A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In those stories, the three Baudelaire children are frequently able to outsmart their enemies because of something they read in a book.
Similarly, in Handler’s new novel, We Are Pirates, the action hinges on how the story’s teenage protagonist, Gwen, reacts to what she’s been reading: namely, a bunch of old-fashioned pirate novels with titles like Captain Blood.
“I find reading exciting,” Handler explains in a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, “and in the moment we’re in, in which there are so many different types of entertainment, the thing I like the most about books is their bookishness. I don’t like books that feel like a season of TV.”
Handler was a devoted bookworm from a young age. “I was a voracious reader and a big rereader. I believed that the more you reread a book, the more secrets you could draw out of it.”
Some of the authors he liked best as a youngster are very much in line with the tone and aesthetics of the Lemony Snicket series: Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl. But he fondly rattles off the names of a wide range of other writers as well. “And I fell into a pit of Nabokov when I was in college that I don’t think I’ve quite come out of yet,” he adds.
Handler tends to like stories that are straightforward about exactly who is doing the telling: Stories that, like the Lemony Snicket books, go through a clear narrative framework.
In his rollicking new book, the storyteller’s identity is less clearly defined, but it’s still crucial. In the first few pages, a mysterious “I” leads us room by room around a party at the home of the Needle family. Very quickly this narrator vanishes, or rather, seamlessly blends into the story, and the two main characters, Phil Needle and his daughter, Gwen, take over.
The story is powered by Gwen, a frustrated teenage girl who has just been caught, uncharacteristically, shoplifting at a drugstore. (Importantly, it is Gwen’s alter ego who did the deed.) As punishment, her parents send her to volunteer as a companion to Errol, a gruff old man in a nursing home who, as he keeps repeating, has a problem with his memory. Errol supplies her with armloads of books about pirates, and Gwen is entranced.
The books are exactly the kind of old-fashioned, swashbuckling pirate lore that Handler had in mind while writing—the kind of stories where a crusty fisherman with a pegleg sits down at the bar and announces he’s going to tell you a tale.
In this case, the story is set in the present, but the storyteller’s filter still does the same trick: It’s a reassurance for the reader. “You know [the story] ends at a party where everyone’s okay,” Handler explains.
That reassurance is especially useful here, because there’s a moment when We Are Pirates takes a bloody turn, and if you didn’t know everyone was going to be okay you might worry. To simplify the action-packed plot a bit: As Gwen spends more time with Errol, she takes his stories of life on the open sea evermore seriously. She meets a gung-ho girl at her dentist’s office and they become inseparable, calling each other “wench” and quoting key passages from the pirate books to each other. The three solidify into a crew, and they devise a brilliant plan for escape. Suffice it to say, all does not go as expected.
“The idea was to think about what happens when you step outside the law, outside the boundary,” Handler says. “You think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be so much more fun,’ but there’s a reason we have laws.”
Gwen is a great character, immediately real and as tormented as any teenage girl struggling to figure out who she is. Even when her decisions are profoundly wrong, you understand exactly why she made them. Her observations are blistering. (“Who does not see rich people on a boat and want to destroy them?” Handler writes, as Gwen gazes at a yacht and eloquently seethes.)
“I knew some Gwens when I was that age, and my sister was kind of a Gwen,” says Handler, now 44. “I see such a restlessness and a fury in many young women around me. There’s a lot of narrative crackle there.”
The storyline shifts between Gwen and her father, Phil, an equally fascinating character. Phil is a radio producer who seems to be tragically deluded about nearly every aspect of his domestic and professional life. He wants to be good, but it means he’s constantly censoring his thoughts and impulses. He’s a classic lost soul, and his internal musings are as heartbreaking as they are bitingly funny.
Handler has lots of practice at figuring out new ways to tell troubling stories. His first novel, The Basic Eight, was based on an actual high-school murder from his childhood; he says he approached the arrangement of the narrative structure for maximum impact “almost like a mathematical equation.”
The impressive tonal balance between sadness and comedy in his latest novel comes in part from what was going on in Handler’s life. He’d started writing this novel years ago, but found that it was too light and “goofy” for what he wanted to do. So he set it aside. Time passed, until Handler found that his situation had changed: not only was he a father, but his own father was suffering from dementia.
“I was in effect handed front-row seats to an experience that I had previously had no access to,” he recalls. “It’s a long disease—there’s time for all of the emotions.”
If his father could see himself in Errol, Handler says, “He would be absolutely tickled.”