"The book you are holding in your hand is extremely dangerous," begins the jacket copy for Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography. "If the wrong people see you with this objectionable autobiography, the results could be disastrous." And with this first glimpse, hundreds of thousand of kids will grin their evil little grins and realize that they are back in the sly world of Lemony Snicket, where everything is forbidding and mysterious. The Lemony Snicket books have a special appeal for children who, being naturally more sophisticated than their parents, have very little patience with happy stories. The jacket also advises the reader to disguise the hazardous volume by turning around the reversible cover. When you reverse the somber, brown paper wrapper, you find a shiny, excruciatingly happy jacket for The Pony Party!, volume one in the series "The Luckiest Kids in the World!" by Loney M. Setnick. The fake jacket copy proceeds to lampoon the artificially sweetened and possibly carcinogenic kid-book antics that so many children find tiresome. (For example, the dyspeptic woman in the Setnick author photo looks like a serial killer but claims to spend her spare time teaching children to skip.) The new autobiography is a companion to Snicket's wildly popular series of books about the depressing misadventures of the orphaned Baudelaire children, who are constantly on the run from Count Olaf, a man best described as, well, icky. (According to Snicket, Olaf is "one of the world's six worst villains.") This series of unfortunate events, appropriately titled "A Series of Unfortunate Events," began appropriately with The Bad Beginning. These are the only appropriate aspects of these deliciously inappropriate adventures. Subsequent alliterative titles lead readers through a Miserable Mill and a Vile Village and other equally depressing places. The latest volume, the eighth, is The Hostile Hospital. In it the children wind up in hot water while fleeing from a false murder charge. The books are full of Snickety jokes. On the back of the new volume is a newspaper obituary for Mr. Snicket, "Author and Fugitive," and stuck over it is a handwritten note signed L.
S. that proclaims "I AM NOT DEAD." Ah, but can we trust such a mysterious and elusive figure? His author bio says that Snicket is "widely regarded as one of the most difficult children's authors to capture and imprison." Reviewers aptly compare the revelations of Mr. Snicket (and, by implication, his representative, Mr. Handler) with the irreverent comedies of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey. The distinction sometimes is that Mr. Handler oops, Mr. Snicket doesn't write like a writer winking conspiratorially at the kids in the audience. He writes like one of the kids. Here is a sample of the prose style, which is something along the lines of Mad magazine rewriting Raymond Chandler: "The stranger was a woman, at least as tall as a small chair and probably as old as someone who attended nursery school many years ago. She was dressed in articles of clothing, and had nothing on her feet except a pair of socks and two shoes."But there is more to the series than silly wordplay. And there is more to the new autobiography than kids will find in the rest of the series. It's a different approach, perhaps even more playful and teasing, than what readers have come to expect. The book is as postmodern as any French critic might daydream about composing. It is pieced together from letters, musical scores, photographs, diary entries, fragments of movie scripts, newspaper entries, maps, telegrams, ship boarding passes, menus, pages torn from books and crumpled notes rescued from wastepaper cans and reassembled with, of course, missing lines. The young readers in your house will want both of the new Snicket books. The Hostile Hospital is worth reading just for the satire of the Volunteers Fighting Disease, who invade hospitals with heart-shaped balloons and sing the inmates to happiness. But kids will turn the pages frantically as the children Klaus, Violet and that laconic tot Sunny hide out in the hospital only to hear over the intercom the snide voice of Count Olaf, claiming he is the new Head of Human Resources. "Use your setting," counseled Alfred Hitchcock, and Snicket does so. What is it that we fear most in hospitals? Yes, that is what happens next. Michael Sims' new book Adam's Navel will be published by Viking next year.