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The Order of Oddfish


I review Daniel Handler’s “And Then? And Then? What Else?” for the Wall Street Journal

May 28, 2024

Back in the 2010s I occasionally did book reviews for the Wall Street Journal (you can read them all here). For a while I stopped, but when the editor asked if I’d review Daniel Handler’s new memoir And Then? And Then? What Else? I couldn’t resist taking the assignment. Daniel Handler is the man behind the pen name “Lemony Snicket,” and I loved his Series of Unfortunate Events books and many of his other books too. You can read my positive review of his memoir here here, in which I say “the real treats of this book are Mr. Handler’s infectious delight in literature and the peculiar sensibility through which he sees the world . . . This erudite, vulnerable, funny and idiosyncratic book ranks among his best.”

I’ve met Daniel Handler twice. I like him a lot—he’s a good hang, courteous and friendly and witty. The first time I met him was back in 2013 (gulp, over 10 years ago), when the Chicago Humanities Festival had me do a presentation with him for an evening event for a lot of kids and families. While I appreciated the gig and Handler was great, it was a trainwreck for me, although that was my fault!

Obviously, most of the kids there were big Lemony Snicket fans, and Daniel Handler is an ace showman. (Apparently he’s always known how to handle a crowd. In my research for the WSJ review, I found this video of a teenaged Handler doing a graduation speech at his high school. He kills.) Anyway, I should’ve thought twice when the event organizers told me that Daniel Handler would go first, and I would follow him.

Huh? Shouldn’t the bigger name go last? Well, no, the organizers told me, in this case these hundreds of kids wanted their books signed by Daniel Handler, which gave them a logistical problem of what the kids would do while waiting. Their solution: divide the audience into groups A, B, C, D, and E. After Handler finished his bit, he would start signing while I did my presentation. And so, hilariously and humiliatingly, as I did my presentation, every 10 minutes a stentorian voice would come over the P.A. and interrupt me with an announcement like “GROUP D, LEMONY SNICKET IS READY FOR YOU” and an entire fifth of my audience would stand up and walk out.

It didn’t help that I gave one of my most bizarre and alienating presentations ever. I completely misread the room, and prepared a speech that only puzzled and frightened the children. The idea of it, and here I quote from my speech (you can read the whole thing here), was that

“Lemony Snicket is a kind of growth I have exhibited since infancy, an errant polyp, a dermatological curiosity, a kind of sentient tumor I had that, far from causing me discomfort or inconvenience, provided companionship throughout my difficult childhood.”

Then I put up on the screen many photos of a miniature but fully adult Daniel Handler appearing as a “sentient tumor” growing out of my body, throughout my childhood:

“Medically improbable and yet indisputably real, this homonculoid Lemony Snicket would intermittently manifest on my dermis as a kind of itinerant swelling, a lumpish excrescence—a fully adult, well-dressed, miniaturized LITERARY GENTLEMAN sprouting at some times on my forehead, other times on my neck, or my back, or elsewhere; this Lemony Snicket polyp, I hasten to stress, was not a hindrance to me, but rather a blessing, a BOSOM FRIEND and BOON COMPANION.”

And then I went on to reveal that, my nervous parents had Lemony Snicket surgically removed from my body, and we went our separate ways—but now, tonight, because of a number of terrifying and apocalyptic signs and wonders, Lemony Snicket and I would be surgically reunited again, even though it was almost certain to cause the end of the world.

This was the end of the speech that I, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to say to a bunch of children, who were increasingly baffled and uneasy:

When he and I are reunited, on the surgeon’s table, when Lemony Snicket and I look into each other’s eyes one final time as separate entities, and our genetic codes again merge, when our CONGRUENT VISCERA once again lock into place, and THRUM WITH ELDRITCH ENERGY—at that moment, something entirely unprecedented will be introduced into the world, that is neither just Lemony Snicket nor myself or any combination but an SUBLIMELY UNHOLY GESTALT or SERAPHIC ARCHWRAITH that may be the end of us all, or our salvation, or some fiery truth, or a planet-eating brain, or a vaporous ogre, or a mountain of disembodied lips shrieking blasphemous incantations, or indeed some nightmare theorem from the back of the world relentlessly and hideously solving itself through the medium of our very flesh, and its conclusion being . . . some rough beast, its hour come round at last.

What the on Earth was wrong with me? Why did I think children would like this? I know that some of them were upset; I am certain that when each group was called, they escaped the auditorium and my speech gratefully.

Anyway, you can read the whole lurid and ill-considered speech here, complete with more weird images.

And here again is my review of his new memoir And Then? And Then? What Next?

(If you’re wondering what happened the second time I met Daniel Handler, it was at the Printers Row Book Festival in 2021. He was having drinks with my friend Betsy Bird and I joined them. That was a much better time.)