In our new feature, Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: In preparation for Valentine’s Day, The A.V. Club asked Daniel Handler, known to most as Lemony Snicket, what books to avoid on February 14. Handler’s latest novel under his own name is 2011’s Why We Broke Up, which tells the story of a high school romance gone awry and makes the author a bit of an expert on unromantic novels to avoid when planning a romantic evening. Why We Broke Up is out in paperback and is currently in development as a film. Under the Snicket pseudonym, Handler has also penned a new children’s book with his wife, Lisa Brown, titled 29 Myths On The Swinster Pharmacy, which releases this week.
Megan Abbott, Dare Me
Daniel Handler: First of all, I guess I should say, it depends on what you want out of Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day has a broad divide. I don’t know if it’s a red state/blue state divide, but it has a powerful personality divide between people who want only sweetness and light, and people who want no sweetness nor light. So then it would be hard to choose the book that no one should read on Valentine’s Day. This book is about misbehaving, violent cheerleaders. It struck me that if you had a happy high school romantic experience, this book would be upsetting to you. But if you had a miserable one, then maybe it would be revenge on the cheerleaders who wouldn’t take you anyplace.
The A.V. Club: Why We Broke Up is in the middle of that. You touch on the youthful exuberance of first love as well as the terrible, crushing feeling that happens when you break up. Would you consider your own book for both pro- and anti-Valentine’s camps?
DH: [Laughs.] I guess from a marketing standpoint, the answer is “Yes, everyone should own it.” I always think it’s interesting that you look back at your first love and you forgive its heartbreak. Even though you were so miserable then, it becomes kind of charming how miserable you were. And how happy you were seemed delusional. When I was writing Why We Broke Up, I was sure it was a small story and it wouldn’t really resonate with anyone. It felt like just a project I was doing with Maira [Kalman], the illustrator. But then I would go to dinner or something and people would say, “What are you working on?” and I’d say, “I’m working on a book about this couple in high school that breaks up.” And before that sentence was out of my mouth, everyone would want to talk about their own high school experiences, which is not something that had ever happened to me [Laughs.]. Usually the book I’m writing sounds really strange, and everyone says “Huh,” before they move on. But with Why We Broke Up, everyone wanted to talk about it. With Dare Me, everyone who’s read it needs to process their own adolescent angst and their own unwise and manipulative friendships, which is kind of the opposite of Valentine’s Day.
Amy Bloom, Away
DH: After I’d read this book, I read a couple interviews with Amy Bloom where she said the book was inspired by the true incident of a woman who tried to return to Russia from America via the Bering Strait. She said that she heard that and thought, “Why would anyone do that?” and that the answer must be love. This woman is driven by love into terrible circumstances. The novel, for a while, let’s you live in her dream that the terrible circumstances will go away and it will end the way you want all great love stories to end, where you’re in the arms of your beloved, and everything is okay and all the hardship was worth it. Although it has kind of a happy ending, it doesn’t teach you that all the hardship was worth it. It has a heartbreaking ending that would spoil your Valentine’s Day if you were trying to be cheerful and romantic. I finished reading this book in the Frankfurt airport, and I was crying very hard in the lounge. I was by myself, and I was traveling home from somewhere. As I was crying, I made a deal with myself that it was okay to cry a little bit in the Frankfurt airport, but I couldn’t cry so much that someone was going to ask me if they could help. That was the boundary I set for myself. I said to myself, “You can cry a little bit, because you clearly cannot stop yourself, but you must stop yourself from crying so hard that somebody in fractured English is going to say [Puts on German accent.], ‘Can vee help you?’” And that struck me as the opposite of Valentine’s Day.
Arthur Schnitzler, Rhapsody (a.k.a. A Dream Novel or Dream Story)
DH: I imagine the story of this novel will be known to most people as the story of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s last film. It’s a hallucinatory tale of a marriage that gets fraught, first through imaginary circumstances, then through actual circumstances. I don’t know if this was the actual theme that Arthur Schnitzler was going for, but the novel taught me that you have to be very careful with the way that you talk dirty with your beloved. Sometimes it can be hot and steamy, but in the case of Rhapsody, it is disturbing and off-putting. So you don’t want to talk dirty to your partner the way they talk dirty in Rhapsody, and let that be a lesson to lovers everywhere.
AVC: There’s also a harrowing sex-party masquerade, which is what most people remember from Eyes Wide Shut. A theme in a several of the books you’ve chosen is strange psychosexual relationships.
DH: That’s probably true, but that’s probably the history of literature right there. I’m from San Francisco where many people go to some kind of sexual experimentation gathering for Valentine’s Day, and certainly the orgy in the Schnitzler novel would not get you in the mood for an orgy. You would read that and say, “You know what? Let’s stay in. Orgies are creepy and dark, they’re not fun.” What a relief that The A.V. Club can take a stance on this!
Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban
DH: This is one of my favorite novels in the world. It is about an unhappily married woman who meets a reptilian monster, and has an affair with him. I think it’s a splendid novel, and has a perfect ending. But if you are considering your own romantic history, this teaches you that if you go after something that you want, no matter what the obstacles in your path, it actually won’t turn out that well. It may seem to you that it is unwise to have a romantic relationship with a monster, and it turns out, yes, it is unwise to have a romantic relationship with a monster.
AVC: It doesn’t seem to have a great view of marriage, either.
DH: She’s unhappily married, sure, and the husband is kind of a lout. But in the end, it does seem as if she is better off with her loutish husband than she is with the reptilian monster. I guess the grass is always greener, even if it’s a reptilian shade of green. I offer that tag line to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks when they eventually get around to making the movie of Mrs. Caliban. I’ve heard before that Mrs. Caliban was in development for film, but it was dropped 20 years ago or something. It’s always struck me that it hasn’t been made into a movie. Not that I think it would necessarily be a great movie, but I can’t believe no one’s made it. As soon as there was another Beauty And The Beast TV show, I wondered, “When is Mrs. Caliban getting its own soft-focus indie movie?”
AVC: It was kind of a cult book. It wasn’t well known when it was published, but it got some buzz in England. It’s been called one of the best American novels since World War II.
DH: I definitely feel like I’m someone where they said, “Let’s spread the cult, you [take] San Francisco.” I give that book to everybody. I tell everybody to read it, and very few people have come back to me and joined my cult. It’s a lonely cult here in San Francisco around Mrs. Caliban. I encourage A.V. Club readers to read Mrs. Caliban, and if they’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, come find me and we can finally get this cult off the ground. Just don’t read it on Valentine’s Day. Have a wonderful date with your loved one. Don’t think about the fact that everything goes to hell and you actually can’t overcome certain obstacles in your relationship. And then, when the date is over, read Mrs. Caliban and join my cult. We’ll be sacrificing virgins in no time. I don’t know where we’ll find virgins in San Francisco. Maybe we’ll find them in Alameda. We’ll go out to the suburbs.
Andrew Sean Greer, The Path Of Minor Planets
DH: Andrew Sean Greer, a native San Franciscan and a charming man. The Path Of Minor Planets looks at various romantic entanglements over time. Every time a certain celestial event occurs in the sky is a chapter of the book. You look back on these people and all of their entanglements. It’s a book that will dash your romantic notions of staying together forever, because it checks in on people as years go by, and sees how time changes relationships. When you’re in the middle of Valentine’s Day you want to feel “Oh, this is forever! Everything is forever!” This book says, “Be careful about forever.”
AVC: Most of these books seem to have that point. When you have a romantic dinner with your wife, do you try to put stuff like this out of your mind?
DH: My wife and I are basically on the same page. We’re also not big Valentine’s Day people. We’ve been together forever. In fact, when we were in our 20s we were together, and all our friends were single. We always hated Valentine’s Day, because our friends would be doing something fun. They’d say, “Hey, let’s all get smashed and do karaoke,” or “Let’s go watch King Kong at the Castro Theater.” We would say, “Oh, we’ll come too,” and they would say, “No, it’s Valentine’s Day, you guys go out. This is for singles.” Then my wife and I would have to go to some overpriced tasting menu someplace, and we’d be pouting the whole time because we couldn’t be with our single friends. I don’t think my wife and I are in danger of too many fruffy romantic notions when we go out. But you know how you’re desperately single in your 20s, you can get very self-righteous about couples. You can take the fifth on that if your friends are going to read this.
David Garnett, Lady Into Fox
DH: That should have probably been next to Mrs. Caliban, since they have similar problems. Mrs. Caliban is about a woman trying to make a relationship work with a reptilian creature, and Lady Into Fox is about a man trying to make a relationship work when his beloved turns into a fox. Like most novels that I really admire, it’s something that feels symbolic, but you can’t figure out what it’s symbolic of. He kind of hides her from the public for a while, then tries to domesticate her, but she’s a fox. She’s doomed to be a fox. So it feels maybe like a metaphor for the wild self we all have inside, or maybe it’s a metaphor for when the person you love changes, or something like that. It swats around the notion that two people can stay together no matter what. If you’re engaged to be married, and if your fiancé turns into a fox, that might be a deal breaker. Which is hard. You don’t want to think about that on Valentine’s Day. You don’t want to think about, “Honey, if you turned into a fox, I don’t know if I could do it.” Particularly on Valentine’s Day, you want to say, “Of course, no matter what, darling, we will always be together.” And then you can secretly think to yourself, “Of course, if you turned into a fox, let’s face it.”
AVC: It seems similar to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in that someone has a magical transformation, then everyone else tries to make do, but it completely blows up in their faces.
DH: It’s much more literal-minded than The Metamorphosis. One of the comforts of The Metamorphosis is that it’s kind of abstract, whereas in Lady Into Fox, you really feel the hardship of living with a fox. [Laughs.] I also like the idea that “fox” has become slang for attractive woman. I like to picture the husband going out to drinks with a friend and saying, “The weirdest thing happened. I woke up in the morning and my wife was a fox.” And the other guy going, “I always thought your wife was a fox. She’s hot!” And he would have to say, “No, literally a flesh-eating wild animal. Not just someone who’s put together well.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
DH: To me, Charlotte’s Web is all about the sacrifices you make for love. Charlotte makes all these sacrifices, she pushes herself to the limit, to save the life, and it’s a platonic relationship, but to save the life of Wilbur. And then it ends up killing her. She’s exhausted and dead at the end. Wilbur is trying to get her loved ones to honor her instead. It’s a beautiful book. It’s one of the most towering achievements in American literature, certainly. But for Valentine’s Day, you want to think about how your sacrifices will all turn out fine, and in Charlotte’s Web, she sacrifices so much she ends up dead. She spent her life in service of saving a pig. And who wants to think about that? On your deathbed, after a long and successful marriage to this person, you don’t want to think to yourself, “I’ve spent my life in service to a pig.” That’s terrible, that’s not Valentine-y at all.
AVC: At the end of White’s Stuart Little, Stuart still hasn’t found Margalo, his true love. He’s still going off to find her, so there’s a kind of hopefulness, but there’s also this idea that he may never find her. White seems to enjoy these non-romantic endings.
DH: I have something of an appreciation for Stuart Little now, but when I first read it, I thought that book was a total gyp. I remember that I literally turned the page, the last page of the book, thinking there was more, and was like, “You’re kidding me, there’s nothing? He doesn’t find anything?” I remember I had this argument with someone in children’s publishing, where I said that I thought that ending was ridiculous. She said, “It’s about adoption. Stuart Little is this mouse whose parents are human. It’s about wondering where you really came from. For many people who are adopted, they never find out.” I said, “Yeah, in life. This is a book. In life, a rebel cop who doesn’t play by the rules gets fired. But in a Bruce Willis movie, you don’t want that. [Pretends to be police officer.] ‘You’re way out of control, sir, goodbye.’” You want him to save the world. I felt that way about Stuart Little. Yes, it does capture the essence of life. But if, for instance, you’re just a fifth grader who doesn’t want to read something that captures the essence of life, but is just a good story, then you’re going to be disappointed in Stuart Little. When you get older, you realize there are mysteries you’re never going to solve, and life, in and of itself, is incomplete, but if you’re reading little else besides Tintin, then Stuart Little is going to be disappointing.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
DH: I think Lolita is a litmus test for what kind of Valentine’s Day person you are. If you find Lolita hopelessly monstrous and sad, then you should not read it on Valentine’s Day, and you should keep it very separate from the romantic relationships you have in your life. If you find Lolita hilarious and actually kind of sexy, then you should read it on Valentine’s Day, and you should probably stay in with your loved one. A famous critic somewhere said that it was the only believable love story of the 20th century. I wouldn’t say that, but I think Lolita captures the derangement of what love is. You fixate on a person. You can’t really listen to anything but your most visceral of senses. Your intellect has been chased away by the love that you feel. In Humbert Humbert’s case, it’s horrifying who he’s attached himself to, but I think Lolita teaches that love is inherently deranged. Love is quite crazy. If you think that, first of all, come and sit next to me, and you’ll love reading it on Valentine’s Day. But if you’re scared of the idea that love is derangement, then you should read Lolita on some other day. Arbor Day, maybe. It can wreck your Arbor Day. I know The A.V. Club has a huge Arbor Day, pullout issue. I want to make sure they’re prepared for that.
AVC: Do you have any other pointers for Valentine’s Day?
DH: Don’t order any of the special Valentine’s Day cocktails that are at bars. Just order your regular cocktail. All the Valentine’s Day cocktails are nasty. But probably wherever you go, there’ll be something that says, “We have the Crimson Rose cocktail, it’s only eight dollars!” No. Absolutely not. Don’t do it. That’s my advice.