Quick Review: “All the Wrong Questions”, by Lemony Snicket

Like Snicket’s other series, this series is not superversive. Since I’ve done so much writing on the Snicketverse anyway I figure I might as well do a bit on his prequel series to “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, “All the Wrong Questions”.

You may see a longer Castalia article later, but here are my current thoughts:

This series was both better and worse than “A Series of Unfortunate Events”.

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” was more creative in the sense that there really isn’t anything like it out there on the shelves. Snicket experimented and took risks with narration, literary techniques, absurdist humor, and general style that made the whole series feel, even when re-read today, like something fresh, new, and exciting. The only comparison I’ve ever been able to find is Douglas Adams. While “All the Wrong Questions” certainly feels as if it’s written by Lemony Snicket, with its literary references, love of wordplay, and entertaining narrator, it sticks much more closely to an established style (in its case, the series is very much a hard-boiled noir mystery, complete with world-weary narrator and femme fatale). There’s a built in structure in the series inherent to the genre that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” noticeably lacked; the books were formulaic, true, but the formula was their own.

Not that that structure didn’t have benefits. “All the Wrong Questions” is FAR, far better plotted. The plotting of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was rather unwieldy and haphazard, but “All the Wrong Questions'” plotting is iron tight. Since the books – and the series as a whole – are structured as mysteries, this is very important.

The main character is more complex than any one character in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. In the original series Snicket tended to define his characters with one memorable trait. Violet invents. Klaus reads. Sunny bites, and later cooks. Josephine is afraid. Jerome hates to argue. Hector is skittish. Olaf is a clever, drunken brute. As the series went on some shading was added to the characters, but not a whole lot; ask casual fans who Violet is and they’ll invariably say “She was the girl who invented things, right?”. And Widdershins will forever be “The guy who never hesitated”.

Snicket – this time our narrator AND protagonist – is more complex and interesting than any of them. Snicket is clever, resourceful, witty, and brave, but he is also arrogant, rude, shockingly good at lying even to people he likes, and Machiavellian to a frightening, even downright terrifying, degree. Not any one character – or at least any one major character – in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is as interesting as Lemony Snicket is in “All the Wrong Questions”.

The series also does a much better job handling the theme of moral ambiguity. ASoUE ended on an anticlimax; the majority of the questions Snicket sets up aren’t answered and the moral standing of several characters is muddied for no apparent reason except that it helps the author get his message across; it certainly doesn’t improve the story. Questions about characters are raised, but the book ends without coming to any conclusions. Perhaps there’s a good message there, but it’s wrapped up in a poor story.

AtWQ’s ending is anything but an anticlimax; in fact, “Why is this Night Different from All Other Nights?” is about as perfect a conclusion as Snicket could have possibly written. This time the theme of moral ambiguity actually makes the book stronger; the main mystery driving the series is answered but your entire perspective about everything you’ve read has totally shifted – for, you see, you’ve been asking the Wrong Questions.

So, to all who are thinking about trying out the series, I end my article with this:

Your question throughout the series is almost certainly going to be “Why does Hangfire want the statue of the Bombinating Beast so badly?”

But that’s the wrong question. The right question is this: What lengths would Lemony Snicket go to in order to end Hangfire’s villainy?

The series is not superversive, but especially for fans of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” it’s highly recommended.