“There are love stories galore,” Cole, the teenaged boy tells us, “This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.” Welcome to the mind of an average American adolescent boy, and to the new novel by Daniel (Lemony Snicket) Handler. The funny thing is that while there’s a lot of sex, none of it feels it dirty. Handler’s headlong plunge into the consciousness of Cole is not a book-length letter to Penthouse. It’s a powerful reminder our endless and intimate connections to one another – and story.
From the get-go, Handler has a lot of fun here. He’s a smart writer and commits fearlessly to his premise, with a stream-of-consciousness style that is the reading equivalent of a fast moving, ice-cold river. It’s a powerful, immersive, wake-you-the-hell-up experience. Handler’s prose is the key. He really nails the propulsive/impulsive nature of the in-between mind. Cole cannot control his own thoughts, let alone his actions. While we all might know this in theory, and even a bit in memory, Handler’s evocation bypasses knowledge with immediacy of art.
Cole’s life is in no way exemplary or odd, but our experience of it in prose elevates the ordinary to the sublime. Cole has a close friend, Alec, and eventually hooks up with the new girl, Giselle. Alec is close fit with the rest of the school, while Giselle, an exchange student, is a bit outside the range of normal. Handler’s focus is close enough to be uncomfortable, but clear enough to be uncompromising. He experiments with Alec, dishes dirt, and finds his match in Giselle. But even as we are fascinated, appalled or terrified by the details, we, like Cole begin to discover that there is more than mere event in our lives.
What we discover, to our pleasure, as contrasted in our minds at least, the sorts of pleasures that Cole is pursuing, are events transformed into story by Handler’s relentlessly internalized stare. In spite of himself, Cole is not simply a hedonist. Like it or not, sex turns out to be a connection, a story element from which we may not so easily extricate ourselves. Cole’s vision is not an episodic series of sexual encounters. Word by word, it becomes a life.
All the Dirty Parts certainly lives up to its title, and the sum thereof, which is to say, that in a sparse, smart slip of a novel, Daniel Handler manages to convey far more than the words on the page. This impossible-to-put-down novel is a dare. Step in, be swept away. Life, sex, story. This is human!
So, OK, yes, the AKA, matters, and Lemony Snicket has a new title out as well, The Bad Mood and the Stick, a book for very young readers illustrated by Mathew Forsythe. Between Snicket & Forsythe, plan on a delightful time. The illustration are charming and the title itself confirms that you’ll find the same droll sense of humor at work. It’s lovely, and an argument for publishing children’s books as a box set of hangable art. Make no mistake, the next time I’m in a bad mood, I’ll be sure to have a stick to hand.
In person, Daniel Handler is just as smart and I guess, vexatious (in the best possible sense of the word, and there is one in MY dictionary) as you might expect. Which is to say that even in our lightning round, which you can download by following this link, you can hear that engaging, hilarious pragmatism at work.
Follow this link to listen to the long-form version, or lean in close and listen up to the dark secrets of American adolescence.