Daniel Handler: the most famous unknown author


Seeing a copy of Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up in the YA section of Blackwells may or may not have been one of the heartening aspects of my week. His first novel, The Basic Eight was first published in 1992 and despite the number of successes that Daniel Handler has had between then and now, a surprisingly large number of people have never heard of him. The author of the A Series of Unfortunate Events has certainly had much success under the name of his alter ego, Lemony Snicket but almost none under his own.Despite knowing a large amount of people who are fairly well read, I can count the number of people who have read any of Handler’s other work on one hand and this is something of a travesty. Those who have read his children’s books will not be surprised to hear that his work is clever, very tongue-in-cheek with absolutely mad and brilliant plotting. His tiny corpus of adult novels are all very different but incredibly distinctive.

One of the most unique things about Handler’s authorial voice is his ability to write female narrators seamlessly, especially young women which is fairly unexpected in the literary world. Not only is he clearly more comfortable in their headspace than he seems to be with male characters, I would be hard pressed to name another author, male or otherwise who wrote young women with the same blend of seriousness and humour.

This particular talent of Handler’s is best showcased in The Basic Eight, a book about teenagers written for adults doing some very fun, very necessary deconstructions with it’s narrative. Why We Broke Up is less dramatic in some ways (spoiler alert: no one dies) but just as good at teenage girl. Min, the narrator of the book, is a high school student who wants to work in film and ends up dating a football player. It feels, as all young love does, as if their worlds are too far apart for the love affair to ever end well and when the relationship reaches its doomed end, she picks up all the “prizes and debris” of their relationship, packs them into a box and proceeds to write him a book-long letter of why they broke up (beautifully illustrated by artist Maira Kalman). She peppers her letters with references to obscure movies she watches and film stars she likes, all of whom her jock-ish ex has absolutely no knowledge of, the details of which Handler invented entirely so if anyone else feels silly for never having seen The Sky Cries Too, they should know it doesn’t exist.

When he’s not being Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler also seems to be just a very cool bloke. He plays the accordion for The Magnetic Fields and Stars, he seems to throw a lot of dinner parties and promoted Why We Broke Up by trawling around Grand Central Station harassing people into discussing their love lives with him. Much like the characters he writes, Handler seems like he’d be extraordinarily good fun at a cocktail party.

What I’m trying to say is; there’s something for everyone in Handler’s books; if you fancy a post-Halloween read, pick up Watch Your Mouth, the Jewish-mythology opera-in-book-form. If you want to weep yourself into a torrent of doomed young love, read Why We Broke Up. If you want a darkly comic glimpse into a teenage girl’s head, The Basic Eight. And if you’d like a series of short stories about some very strange love affairs, get Adverbs. Do yourself a favour this Christmas; stay in, make a drink and read some Daniel Handler.


PHOTO/Maria Kalman