We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler, Bloomsbury USA, 288 pages
Daniel Handler is one of the most influential authors of recent decades, although you may never have heard his name. As Lemony Snicket, however, his “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books have sold by the truckload and set a precedent for young adult and children’s novels that still resonates today. Entire shelves of bookstores are filled with series that borrow Snicket’s quirky language and mischievous, knowing tone to great success.
Snicket’s series was published between 1999 and 2006. Before and since that span, Handler published books under his own name that garnered some acclaim but didn’t achieve anything close to raking in the fortune that “Unfortunate Events” did. However, his 2011 young-adult book, Why
We Broke Up , earned him a Michael L. Printz Honor for teen literature and was swiftly picked up for film adaptation.
His latest book, We Are Pirates , harks back to his first published work, 1998’s The Basic Eight . That manuscript reportedly scared off publishers due to its overly dark tone in describing the life of a teenage girl. If it had been his first novel, We Are Pirates might have done the same. It’s about a teenage girl named Gwen, who works out her angst by taking to the high seas of the San Francisco Bay Area in a makeshift pirate ship with her best friend and a motley crew of misfits for the purposes of plundering unsuspecting vessels. This story runs alongside that of Gwen’s father, who experiences a crisis at a turning point in his radio-producing career.
What could be considered delightfully macabre in the “Unfortunate Events” novels comes off as merely mean-spirited here. What could be considered gleefully gothic when written for children is mostly depressing when the dark edge takes on more explicitly morbid shadows for an older audience. He leaves little doubt that he holds affection for his characters, but the act of reading this book is not a joyful one — even before the pirate voyage shifts from whimsical fantasy to a violent reality.
Handler does have a peculiar way of conveying the world — which is his greatest strength, but it’s also a weakness. Of Gwen’s father, for example, Handler writes, “He was a landlubber, with no sea legs even in his own house, and his daughter, his baby, was storming in the next room, unhinged, unanchored, and grounded.” The relentlessness of this kind of phrasing and his scattershot details makes the book unusual, but it also holds readers at a distance, forbidding them from connecting to the characters.
It’s also hard to thread the needle when you’re using obtuse and eccentric language to tell a story that includes missing children, murder, Alzheimer’s disease, and issues of gender and race. Handler has had recent trouble with the latter of late, having made tasteless jokes while honoring AfricanAmerican writer Jacqueline Woodson at the 2014 National Book Awards (he has since apologized and donated considerable sums to the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books). In We Are Pirates , the author’s omnipresent narrator adds to the book’s uneven tone with quirky and knowing asides throughout, including when he directly informs his audience that nearly everyone in the book is white. This book is the latest in a series of unfortunate events for him.