Thursday, 3 July 2014

Chapter-by-Chapter: The Reptile Room, Chapter 3

I love how some of these chapters end on a cliffhanger. It makes me want to keep reading. Considering in the past I’ve managed to read some of these books in just one day, I think I’m showing incredible restraint in just taking it one chapter a day.

What Happens?

It is revealed that the Incredibly Deadly Viper is not deadly at all and it soon becomes good friends with Sunny. Meanwhile the children all start work on the preparations for going to Peru as well as getting settled into their new home with Uncle Monty. The only cloud on the horizon comes in the form of the arrival of Stephano, Monty’s new assistant. When the children meet him, they realise straight away that this man is actually Count Olaf in disguise.

Thoughts as I read:

This chapter opens with the tail end of what I can only assume is the Incredibly Deadly Viper. It’s got an interesting pattern, all sort of zigzaggy and stripy. It’s skinner than I was picturing it, and it looks kind of different to the snake in the picture on the front cover.

Lemony Snicket opens the chapter with an apology for ending Chapter Two so abruptly. Apparently he was busy working on the story of the Baudelaire orphans when he realised he was running late for an important dinner party. He reassures us that the tragic event which occurred at Uncle Monty’s house was not Sunny’s death at the fangs of the Incredibly Deadly Viper. He also lets slip that Uncle Monty is the one who isn’t going to survive to the end of this book, but having remembered to read the last page of The Bad Beginning, we already knew that.

All the same, he leads us along for a second longer:

As the fangs of the Incredibly Deadly Viper closed on Sunny’s chin, Violet and Klaus watched in horror as Sunny’s little eyes closed and her face grew quiet.

Uh oh.

But it’s okay. A second later she’s biting the giant snake back on its nose.

Rather unexpectedly, Monty starts laughing. For a moment the children must be wondering if their new guardian is as crazy as the old one. Well, maybe he is, but at least he’s nicer with it than Olaf was. Monty then explains that the Incredibly Deadly Viper isn’t actually deadly, when he named it he adopted a ‘misnomer’. Apparently this is his idea of a joke because he intends to play the same trick on the Herpetological Society in order to get back at them for all the times they’ve teased him about being called Montgomery Montgomery. As jokes go, it’s a pretty good one actually.

Violet and Klaus see the funny side of this too, meanwhile Sunny has made really good friends with the snake and they’re snuggled up together on the floor. As a small child I used to have a pet cat who used to let me sit on him, so I imagine Sunny’s relationship with the IDV is much the same as mine was with Ty.

At this point Violet thinks it is pertinent to ask about whether there are any poisonous snakes in the room. And there’s quite the list. Monty has poisons from every known snake so he can study them; he has a snake whose bite will stop a person’s heart, one whose mouth can open wide enough to swallow them all whole, he even has a pair of snakes which have learned to drive a car very dangerously. Thankfully these snakes live in much securer cages than that of Sunny’s new best friend. I’m curious about the car driving snakes; does one operate the pedals and the other steer? Which one changes gears? Then again, I suppose if they don’t drive well then I guess they might not even worry about that too much.

After Monty reassures the children that nothing bad can happy to them in the Reptile Room we get a short discourse on the meaning of dramatic irony. These books often point out things that are coming up, making it really clear what you’re reading is going to be an important plot point later, like the repeated emphasis on Violet’s being right-handed during the last book. I can imagine that some people might find this a bit tedious but I quite like it and I’m sure it appeals to lots of kids.

Anyway, the narrator takes this opportunity to explain:

Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.

What does this tell us? Obviously something really bad is going to happy in the Reptile Room, probably within the next hundred pages or so.

We’re reminded that Uncle Monty isn’t going to make it to the end of the book and it won’t be long before everything completely falls apart for the children. This is an unusual approach for a book to take, telling you how it’s going to end, then reminding you of what’s coming all the way through before you actually get to it. The only other similar book (that’s not of this series) that springs to mind is Stuart: A Life Backwards which literally tells the story of the titular character backwards; from his untimely death looking back on the events that led him to that point. And that’s not quite the same because it’s running backwards, not forwards.

All the same, the children get to enjoy a wee bit of happiness for a week. We get another little bit of repetition establishing the rooms that the children chose for their own. Violet’s has a large window looking out over the garden to inspire her inventing. She’s been allowed to put up bits of paper on the wall to sketch out ideas whenever she feels like it. Klaus’s room sounds like my ideal room. He’s got a cosy alcove (my house has a cosy alcove, but we’ve got a cupboard in it and it’s been given over to Tara’s ‘bedroom’). He’s got a lovely reading lamp and a large chair which he can sit in to read all night. I love it. Sunny’s room is directly in between her siblings and she’s got a collection of objects for her to bite as well as toys to play with whenever the Incredibly Deadly Viper comes out. After the desolate, depressing room that they shared when they lived in Olaf’s house, this is heaven.

Just to rub in how happy the children are with Uncle Monty, so we really appreciate it when everything goes wrong as usual, we get more. The children spend their days hanging out with Monty in the Reptile Room, each one has their own task to attend to; Violet works on the traps, Klaus reads up on Peru and Sunny divides up long rope into shorter pieces. It’s a lovely little scene for them and so kind of depressing because it’s not going to last long.

We get to learn a little more about the fantastic creatures in the Reptile Room. I love them all. It reminds me of the creatures in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. There’s the Alaskan Cow Lizard, which produces milk; the Dissonant Toad, which mimics human speech; the Inky Newt, who secretes black dye, the Irascible Python, which is a grumpy snake; the Green Gimlet Toad, which mustn’t be given too much water; and my personal favourite, the Virginian Wolfsnake which isn’t allowed near typewriters. Even when I read this for the first time and wasn’t so familiar with the works of more literary authors, I recognised the name and it made me smile. I could waffle here about intertextuality, but I won’t. I just like it when you get one of these little jokes because they’re things that not everyone will pick up on, but if you don’t get them, you’re not missing out on anything in the story.

The children also hear a lot about Monty’s life and travels and we get a very nice picture of how happy and wonderful life is for the children now. Of course this has gone on for about three pages now, which is quite enough, it’s time to make them miserable again.

Remember how Count Olaf used to leave the children notes? Well, one morning they get up to find one from Monty. I think part of it is worth quoting:

I have gone into town to buy a few last things we need for the expedition: Peruvian wasp repellent, toothbrushes, canned peaches, and a fireproof canoe. It will take a while to find the peaches, so don’t expect me back until dinnertime.

It’s so random that it’s funny. Either Monty is making a joke, which is funny in itself, or they live somewhere where tinned peaches are harder to get hold of than a fireproof canoe, which is equally funny. Oh, and they’re to welcome Stephano, the replacement assistant, while Monty is out searching for peaches.

He signed the letter "Your giddy uncle" which makes me smile because of the saying 'my giddy aunt' which some people use in place of 'my goodness'. The children debate about what 'giddy' means, speculating that he's excited about going to Peru, getting a new assistant or being the Baudelaires' guardian. Sunny announces "Kindal!" which is suggested means "Or maybe he's excited about all these things." Which I was going to suggest myself but instead I'm too amused by the fact that Sunny has kind of pre-empted eReaders around ten years before they became popular.

And it's been a couple of pages since we were last reminded of the whole dramatic irony thing, so we get another dollop of it. The children still miss their parents, obviously, and they recognise that they always will, but they're actually feeling happy which they've not really experienced for quite a while. It's a little sad because of all the bad things that have happened to them, but at the same time it's uplifting. Of course, the thought of it being uplifting brings me back down to earth with a crash because it's not a feeling that's going to last very long for them.

But the kids don't know this so they go on happily reminiscing about the time when they painted their toenails red, leaving a stain on a yellow chair. Sunny pipes up with "Archo!" which is neither a sneeze nor an attempt at announcing herself as a Star Wars fan, she means "And the stain never really came out." We know that this happy moment won't last though, and to really, really, REALLY hammer it home, the narrator tells us that this is the last happy moment they're going to get for a while.

You know how some authors feel bad about what they put their characters through (for example, in my story Behind the Scenes I kill off a character's parents right in the first chapter. At the time I was first writing it, it was a convenient way to get them out of the way and get my character to the place she needed to be in, in subsequent rewrites it made sense to keep them dead because it gave me more emotional scope to play with, but I still feel kind of bad for their daughter, and them as well come to think of it). Do you think Daniel Handler feels like that for all the crap he put these three characters through?

Anyway, moving on. A car arrives outside, heralding the arrival of Stephano the new assistant. As if he's not enough of a red flag, we're told outright that the sound of the horn "... should signal the beginning of more misery." Yay, things are going to get more depressing!

The children are hoping that Stephano will be as nice as Uncle Monty, though I think that might be a little bit too much. They'd probably end up trying to outnice each other! A slightly toned down version of Monty would be manageable. Not that this is something they need to worry about, there's no way Stephano is going to be anywhere near as nice as Monty. All the same, Sunny shrieks "Gerja!" meaning "Well, let's go find out what Stephano is like!" presumably getting annoyed at her siblings doing the doorbell equivalent of trying to work out who's on the phone by squinting at the Caller ID rather than just answering the damn thing and saying 'hello?'

The person waiting for them outside is tall, has a beard and no eyebrows and is telling the taxi driver he's not getting a tip because he talked too much about his new baby. Can anyone else see where this is going to go? Not yet? What about when we're told that Stephano's voice is familiar, and his shiny eyes are familiar, or that Sunny says "Hooda!" when she spots a bare ankle with something very familiar on it?

And we know, because we've been expecting it ever since we opened this book, let's face it (and not just because I've read it several times before). Stephano is not Stephano at all. He's Count Olaf and things are about to get very, very bad indeed.

I kind of struggled to find things to say about this chapter, mainly because I was reading it late at night, having taken painkillers and finding my eyes kept trying to close against my will. It's a shame because it's a nice chapter, which is maybe why it's hard to say much about it. There are good things happening to the children. Everything's going well for them, but they don't really do a huge amount, after you take into account the big revelations at the beginning and end of the chapter. I'm hoping I can be a little more coherent when I read the next chapter.

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