When he’s not writing immensely popular books for children, Daniel Handler turns his irreverent strangeness to novels
What happens when a writer’s creativity can’t be contained by one identity? Best-case scenario: he or she finds success under a pen name. Just ask Daniel Handler, or rather, Lemony Snicket, the beleaguered writer and narrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a set of 13 mordantly hilarious adventure stories about the Baudelaire children, their evil uncle Olaf, and their very, very bad luck. But Handler has also written five books for adults under his own name, his latest a novel called We Are Pirates.
Be forewarned, We Are Pirates—although strange, irreverent, and steeped in instructional pirate lore—is more interested in character development and the folly of rebellion in a culture designed to stifle it, than whimsy. After all, the messy business of actual piracy plays out much differently than Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow would have you believe. Handler’s close friend, Neil Gaiman, takes the comparison a step further: “Honest and funny, dark and painful, We Are Pirates reads like the result of a nightmarish mating experiment between Joseph Heller and Captain Jack Sparrow.”
When a restless, resentful 14-year-old girl named Gwen—eager to break free of her crushing frustrations and selfish, inattentive parents—is caught shoplifting, her punishment is to volunteer at a nursing home. It’s there, reading swashbuckling pirate tales to a former navy man with Alzheimer’s disease, that she hatches the idea of stealing a ship to plunder San Francisco Bay. She enlists her problematic new best friend Amber to the cause, along with a disgruntled Haitian orderly from the nursing home and a lovesick teenaged boy. But her notion of piracy, cribbed from books without consequences, devolves into real danger and real violence. As her hapless father Phil, departed to a conference with an attractive assistant and tempted to push reset on his life, realizes the urgency of his daughter’s situation, he rushes to bring her back home, even as he indulges in his own freedom fantasies.
Daniel Handler is the perfect writer to tightrope walk us over the dodgy-yet-somehow-integrated territory of delight, rage and longing that makes these characters leap off the grid and believe they can handle the undertow. Through them he wrestles with what it means to pursue happiness outside the boundaries of civilization.
“It is about what ways of escape are available to us and how it feels to escape,” he says, but he isn’t satisfied to merely tell their story—he eggs it on, daring it to cross shark-infested waters, and instructs us in how to best approach the journey. “If you can understand that a book can contain machetes and minor inconveniences, be horrific and funny, then you’ll enjoy my kind of literature.”
Although his jocular style holds traces of Lemony Snicket, in We Are Pirates, Handler grounds his characters in hard-won knowledge. He admits that he struggled to finish the novel until he understood what it meant to be a parent concerned for his child, and how to view the world through the eyes of someone with Alzheimer’s. Both situations were remedied between drafts, the first when he and his wife had their son Otto, and the second when his own father developed the disease. Those experiences add a depth of tenderness to his pointed prose, and a humanism that grants us our youthful questions, aging fears, and foolish mistakes.
Handler has never trafficked much in happy endings, but he prods us to laugh at the darkness, poke holes in platitudes, and take joy in living to tell the tale. When asked what his name would be if he were a pirate, he says, “The one who stays below board during all the mayhem and then serves Gimlets to the survivors.”
If he’s mixing the cocktails, count me in.
Daniel Handler will read from and sign ‘We Are Pirates’ at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 2 at Bookshop Santa Cruz; free.