Oxford Dictionary defines postmodern as “relating to or characterized by postmodernism, especially in being self-referential,” and offers the informative phrase, “postmodern deconstructionist theories” as an example. Not only is this definition the least bit helpful, the example feels as though the word would better belong in a dusty leather bound book on some college professor’s desk. It’s one of those words where if a child had asked its definition, his or her parents would have dismissed it, labeling it as one of those “adult words”.
Yet, it was the first word that came to my mind when I thought back to one of my favorite books as a child: “The Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket. Published in the early 00’s, it didn’t take long for it to become a New York Times Best Seller. At the time, Snicket’s works were well known throughout the media, popularized by readers like me. Much to my recent delight, the series seems to have found itself back in the spotlight after the release of its Netflix adaptation.
As a third grader who lived vicariously through books, I remember falling in love with the series. Its candid representation of the world drew me in like a venus fly trap drawing in flies; an odd sense of allure resonated off of Snicket’s writing style and triggered my childish curiosity. Snippets of narration by Snicket himself constantly imploring the reader to put down the book, the use of complex vocabularies forcefully put in to underscore its own importance, and the expected but unexpected miserable endings brightened my early days with ironic humor. However, it was only recently that I realized that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was my first entrance into postmodern literature.
The postmodern movement emerged in the late 20th century after the war. Quickly labeled as a radical social theory, it was most often characterized by its skeptical view of reality. Since then, the term has been applied to literature, art, philosophy, fiction, and architecture, among others.
For those who didn’t have the luxury of growing up with Lemony Snicket: “A Series of Unfortunate Events” follows the story of three siblings who continually find themselves in rather unfortunate circumstances following the mysterious death of their parents. The TV adaptation puts a remarkable theatrical twist to an already strange tale of misery, misfortune, and grief. The plot coupled with a direct narration of the story (by Patrick Warburton acting as Snicket) creates a lighter mood in an otherwise dark story full of twisted humor and violence. The traditional black and white heroes and villains are replaced by morally gray characters with questionable motives. The difference between fact and fiction disappears. And the story becomes a story within a story within a story.
Like a Tim Burton-esque bedtime story, the story itself seems to be at odds with the target audience. Juggling themes of death, abandonment, injustice, and fear, it delves into realms rarely seen in children's literature. Following the literary trends of Roald Dahl and the Grimm Fairy Tales, Snicket utilizes exaggeration, which often crosses the point of absurdity, in order to soften up its mature content. Ridden with exaggerated irony, absurd characters, and meta-narration, it has a definitive postmodern quality about it. Faithful to the books, each episode in the show opens with a warning from Warburton to “continue at your own risk”. Warburton’s narration frequently pauses the episode with wry comments and forthright spoilers. By blurring the strict divide between the audience and the narrator, Snicket’s masterfully designed plot triggers the human nature of wanting what you can’t have, or in this case, shouldn’t have.
As a child, I was mesmerized by its surreal nature. Not only was Snicket unlike any other authors I had read, the story felt relatable. Not particularly in the sense that I was an orphan fleeing from danger every day, but he had this unique way of putting himself into the story, almost like he was another character. This character interacted with you in a three dimensional way through the two-dimensional pages, acknowledged your existence, and befriended you before the story even started. By bridging the gap between author and reader, Snicket allowed us to enter into our own world of imagination.
I had altogether forgotten about Snicket and the childhood wonders that were his books; it was only when I stumbled upon a trailer of the Netflix series on YouTube that my memories were triggered. For now, it’s safe to say that my weekends are fully booked.