Book review: We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler - an uneasy voyage
We Are Pirates
by Daniel Handler
In darkly interesting times, authors who can satisfy a previously unidentified hunger have the world at their feet. Writing as Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler gave young readers the Unfortunate Events series, the literary equivalent of a scorpion lollipop - a macabre treat.
The theme of Handler's new novel, We Are Pirates, is classic Snicket: escape at any cost. Some of the exuberance and panache are present, too. But there the obvious similarities end, and something far odder, more chaotic - and distinctly adult - takes centre stage.
It starts like a rocket, with the narrative action divided between 14-year-old San Franciscan Gwen and her radio producer father, Phil. When Gwen is caught shoplifting, her punishment is community service: she must hang out with Errol, an old geezer with Alzheimer's disease who talks like Jack Sparrow on a loop. Gwen, who's partial to high-seas literature, is soon doing the same.
Handler switches timelines, settings and perspectives with the virtuosity of a plate-spinner, and while there are laughs aplenty, it is for Phil, compulsive ideas-generator and reluctant family man, that Handler reserves his most mordant wit. His shock at Gwen's thieving spree manifests itself in his contact lenses, which "suddenly felt dry and present": during the family row that ensues, he tries to "turn his cupcake into a scotch on the rocks with the power of his mind".
But beneath the slapstick lurks the painful reality of a father's marital ennui and a daughter's teenage turmoil. The dark, unhappy story proceeds to unfurl, sending out brilliant comic sparks, but soon yells "Disaster ahoy!" at the top of its lungs. Gwen, having taken on board Errol's demented pirate shtick, leads a small crew of misfits - with Errol among them - on a doomed tour-boat trip around San Francisco Bay. They are now officially "pirates".
But what is piracy? In the swashbuckling adventure stories that inspire Gwen and Errol, the pirate is a daredevil who hijacks other vessels, ransacking, killing, wreaking havoc and quaffing rum. But think of the real-life modern equivalent and you have another type of story altogether. In his preface, Handler recognises this. Piracy, he notes, is "an occupation alluring and impossible, a way of life that looks so dashing in literature and film but terrifying and terrible in real life".
So, where does We Are Pirates go wrong? Too much unbearable reality is the short answer. For it is at this point that the narrative sea gets choppy: as the plot creaks, pitches and rolls, and the philandering Phil is catapulted into the desperate search for his child, an aggressive what-the-hellishness takes over, culminating in a gruesome scene on a yacht called Out of the Box - a reminder, should one be needed, that Handler is an author who wouldn't know a box if it opened its own lid and swallowed him alive.
Handler has conjured a set of haphazard juxtapositions: the funny and the creepy, the frantic and the elegiac, the sparkling and the rotten. Yet for all the excitement, the grisly unfortunate events of the climax and their consequence-free aftermath induce a queasy discomfort the conclusion fails to dissipate.