The Penultimate Peril – A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 12
Author: Lemony Snicket
Pub Date: 2005
All I can say is, I did not expect anything like this when I started A Series of Unfortunate Events.
I first came to this series after reading and enjoying a number of other books that reviewers said were similar – The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and others. I read reviews of The Bad Beginning, the first book of the series, but came away thinking that it sounded rather mediocre. And besides, I thought, if I read the first book, I’d probably want to read the other twelve, and thirteen books is an awful lot to read just for one mediocre series! So I didn’t pursue getting it. But then my sister also read reviews of The Bad Beginning and decided on her own to borrow it from the library and read it. And then it was left sitting out. And, well, if a book is sitting out that I’m at least mildly interested in, and it’s entertaining, and especially if it’s short, well, I’ll end up reading it. So I did. And then my sister borrowed the next few books and left them sitting out, and I read them too. They were short, they were entertaining, they were fun, but they weren’t particularly exciting. It was only around book 6, The Ersatz Elevator, that I became really interested. And then I was the one who convinced my sister to borrow book 7, and then once we were done with that, I convinced her to borrow book 8… Well. At that point I was indeed quite curious as to what was going to happen, and I felt the books were getting more clever, but the series was still rather…well, flat. Small. It was only later on that things began to grow into something genuinely engaging. Book 9 had some wonderfully chilling moments. And then book 10, The Slippery Slope, was the first book of the series that I found truly beautiful. Book 12, The Penultimate Peril, far surpasses that.
But why do I find it beautiful? What do I find beautiful in a book, anyway? Consider this.
The fact is that the world is full of light and dirt. Love and disease. Beauty and death. In other words, wonderful things and horrible things.
The world is also full of emotions and mathematics. Whimsy and science. Randomness and fractals. In other words, messy, confusing things and neat, orderly things.
Bad books ignore this multifacetedness. They focus too much on the light and the emotions, maybe, resulting in something fluffily idealistic. Others maybe focus on the dirt and the emotions, resulting in shallow angst. Or perhaps it’s an overemphasis on dirt and mathematics, resulting in a coldly, voidly horrifying dissection of evil. Or light and mathematics, resulting in an unbelievably orderly piece of soulless theory.
Good books, on the other hand, recognize both the light and the dirt, both the emotions and the mathematics. They look them in the face. They may not look them completely in the face, or very obviously in the face. But they accept the world as it is. And then, acknowledging that huge, messy storm of light and dirt, emotions and mathematics, they say something. They find meaning; they find a theme running through the storm.
That’s why I love books that have elements of darkness in them. Yes, a book that is all sweetness can have good points in it, can have truth. But I will be far more willing to listen to a book that can see the darkness, because I feel that it actually acknowledges the world as it really is. It is not creating some idealized fantasy and then getting a message out of that, a message that the author has only proved to me will work in that idealized fantasy. No, a good book takes a real world and gets a message out of that. And by using a real world, the author has said to me, “Look, this is important for you, because you live in a real world. You need to pay attention, because this is your reality.” *
I loved The Penultimate Peril, and more than that, I found it beautiful, because it does this. It acknowledges the ugliness of the real world even as it portrays its loveliness and humor. And then, from that picture, it gets a message, it finds a meaning, it traces a theme.
Now, it’s not perfect, of course. After all, perhaps the most distinct meaning one gets out of The Penultimate Peril is that there is no meaning in the world – it’s just a terrible, chaotic conglomeration of unfathomable mysteries. And it has other flaws, too. The Penultimate Peril is not going to become my favorite book. It’s probably not even going to go on my (very informal) list of favorite books. Rather, it will join many other books I’ll read this year that I found beauty in; books that left me with a feeling, a feeling, a very powerful feeling that there’s something deep and intense inside, even if I don’t understand it quite yet. Something deep and intense under all the random funny bits and sad bits and good bits and bad bits. Much like the world itself, I’d say. And that’s what makes those books beautiful. They mirror the world. Imperfect, lovely, chaotic, hilarious, sad, happy – messy. But with something meaningful, perhaps many things meaningful, just underneath.
There. Now you’ve seen my light-and-emotions side. Hopefully once I’m actually done with the series I’ll write a more full, analytical, dirt-and-mathematics review. But for now, I’m enjoying the thrill of a book that has really made me feel something.
And so…go forth and read!
*Now, when I say “real world,” I don’t mean to say that fantasy novels or other books set in imaginary worlds can’t achieve this. Not at all! Rather consider this: A good fantasy world is realistic, no? And what does realistic mean? It mean it’s believable. It means it fits with our experience. And if it fits with our experience – well, then maybe it has relevance to our experience. It has applicability. And so if an author creates a believable fantasy world and gets a message out of that, when I see the realism of the imaginary world, I see the parallels to my own world, and I see the need for me to listen to the message.