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Given he has previously penned a series of four books called All the Wrong Questions, it’s not surprising author Daniel Handler (a k a Lemony Snicket) would suggest he relishes the frisson of being wrong. He writes:

“That light dawning, that small but potent vertigo as a beautiful idea, taken for granted, falls apart in one’s mind, feels so very essential to the enterprise of literature, not only writing it but reading it and living in a world in which it is written and read. It’s a ticket, being wrong, not only a citation but a way of gaining entrance to something more marvelous and exciting for my not knowing at all what it really is.”

Readers who opt in by picking up his latest, And Then? And Then? What Else? will get to spend 200 pages and change frolicking in Handler’s mind as he struggles to figure out what it really is. It’s a bit of a genre-buster, this book, a sort of memoir in which he’ll do infuriatingly vague things like talk about his time in college without naming where he went (Wesleyan, if you’re interested), describe in detail how he writes while shying away from the writerly phrase process, and lean into a tradition of many before him, from Joan Didion to George Orwell, from David Foster Wallace to Zadie Smith, examining the peculiar compulsion that leads anyone to put words together, thereby, perhaps, helping you do the same. 

“Little scraps enshrined in the mind, presented on a table in a conscious order, is as good a definition of literature as any,” he suggests, both making a grandish claim and undercutting it at once as is his wont, and as he does here, adding, “but compared to the lofty halo of literature as it was studied, mine felt like a dirty habit.” Dirty habits must be considered, of course, given: Handler has authored the book All the Dirty Parts that ferociously earns its title and was meant as a YA book but instead ended up being banned by many a school library; that he has had a brush or two with cancel culture, as And Then? relates; that even his greatest success, A Series of Unfortunate Events, put the Baudelaire orphans through terrifying, tantalizing torture. 

But, as he points out, the family name of those orphans is a huge clue — the author of the Flowers of Evil is at the heart of his life and this book. Handler has no truck for tales of beauty, not in this world. “But the fantastical elements feel, to me, like the cleanest way to tell the plain truth,” he claims in a chapter arguing against censorship. “An indictment of this world we’ve made, which treats children cruelly in every sphere, is not nearly as interesting, as readable, as three orphans being thrown down an elevator shaft in The Ersatz Elevator.”

Much of the intellectual biography work in And Then? leads the reader along a happy trail of artistic influence breadcrumbs — Elizabeth Bishop is probably his favorite poet, Jim Jarmusch his favorite filmmaker, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy is his nomination for the Great American Novel, and more obvious shoutouts given the tenor of his own work go to Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl. (Indeed, considering cancel culture and Dahl’s anti-Semitism, he writes, “Lots of authors are rotten — they are like people in that way.”) 

But then there’s Guy Maddin and Prince, his mentors Kit and Joe Reed, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Sun Ra, his friend and occasional co-creator “Mr. Merritt,” as he calls the leader of The Magnetic Fields. There’s a reading of Nabokov that bests any from a tenured prof, including the line, “I liked how his books had the gossamer effect of escapism and yet remained in the real world’s gravitational pull — in, fact, the world felt more magic, more elaborate in detail and experience, just taking a walk or looking at ordinary items, after spending time reading him.”

Then again, Handler has more than an academic or writerly interest in Nabokov. Reading him, in particular Invitation to a Beheading, “saved my life.” In And Then? Handler tells of his college years when he began to have horrible dreams that grew into waking hallucinations. Seizures and fainting would often follow. Batteries of tests and doctor visits didn’t help. He archly puts it, “Nobody wants to be a medical mystery.” But if Lou Reed was saved by rock ’n’ roll, Handler finds salvation in literature. The art that moves each one of us allows us to handle “the inescapable inexplicables of being alive.” Or, as he puts it, “The author has taken you somewhere, but maybe wasn’t driving the vehicle.”

Such a belief doesn’t stop the book’s penultimate chapter from being titled the cry of every author — “Everything I write is dumb.” There’s the continual striving, the hope in the effort, the occasional spark of connection with another. Writing and reading and living are inseparable. “We each have one, a literary canon, and we make it ourselves, not out of what is respectable or prestigious or prominent or lasting or moral or even well-made,” he asserts. “We make it out of enthusiasm, out of what we love. A sustained thread of enthusiasm, to which I try to connect myself, conjuring it up when I’m writing, from the books I have with me, on the table or just in my mind. And not just books.”

There’s no greater magic ritual than art. So sure, let’s practice.

This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.

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