I finished The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler in one sitting. Wow. Wow. Wow. I can never write a high school book now, because he’s done it. He’s captured the randomness, the conflicting sense of knowing everything and being so cool and in control while at the same time feeling completely stupid, helpless, and overwhelmed. He’s got the sick to your stomach feel of knowing that you have to break up with your sweet boyfriend because you really like someone else, and the complete and utter heartbreak of having someone completely wrong for you break up with you. And he’s really got the drag you off your feet, spiraling feeling of being swept along with what your friends are doing. Most people trying to write “peer pressure” get it all wrong, but he writes it with just the right touch.
The Basic Eight is a group of, suprise!, eight hyper cool, yet still realistic high school seniors. They have dinner parties, dress up for school, cut class to go to coffee, are friends with the uber cool French teacher. (The fact that The Basic Eight even exist shows Handler’s understanding of high school life. In the struggle to identify themselves, to set themselves apart, they’ve claimed a name, even if not all of them like it. As a labled group they’ve staked their ground and their affiliation, which impacts how they’re percieved by everyone else in the school.) They navigate their way through the first months of school until one of them commits murder. (I’m not giving anything away, they talk about the murder on the back cover.) The murder, and what happens after it, are as slightly over the top as the rest of the book, but at the same time completely believable.
The book is made up of Flannery’s journal entries she’s edited while in jail. (Guess who committed the murder.) Because of the editing, the entries now consist of what she actually wrote and her additions and alterations as she remembers back over the events. This creates a time warp of memory which, with the naivete of first experience coupled with hindsight, manages to give a pretty complex and complete version of everything that happens. There’s a repetition to some of the entries that is extremely effective: Flannery confronts her want-to-be boyfriend for standing her up and then is satisfied as he makes excuses, and then the scene is repeated with exactly the same dialogue as her actual boyfriend confronts her about standing him up and she makes the same excuses.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Handler also writes the Lemony Snicket books, and I was not disappointed on the cleverness score here. Literary and cultural references abound, as well as his trademark meta-literary touches. In this book, the reoccuring intrusion is a series of vocabulary words and essay questions that pop up every couple chapters. The vocabulary words are amusing both in their oddity and in their foreshadowing; sometimes they are words that actually appeared in the chapters, other times they reference and clarify vague events that come to light later. The essay questions veer from thought provoking to hilarious: “Do you think it was right for Adam to tell Flannery she was fat? Would you tell her she was fat? Is she fat? Be honest.”
There’s a turn at the end of the novel that caught me completely by suprise, and now I have to read the book again with that in mind. I’m not sure that it works, but I’m really not actually sure that it has to. I’m being purposefully vague, obviously, I just had to mention it. So now forget that I did.
Obviously I loved this book. It really gives an honest sense of high school with all its drama (sans murder usually), while neatly skewering the system of adults that judge high school events without understanding. It’s hilarious in parts, heartwrenching in others, and neither end of that spectrum feel forced or extreme. Highest ratings Mr. Handler!
Current Total: 107
Just Finished: The Basic Eight
Next Up: The Basic Eight again, followed by The Three Muskateers by Alexandre Dumas in preparation for The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Based on your review, I HAVE to read The Basic Eight. I’d never even heard of it anywhere else, but it sounds absolutely fascinating. Thanks.
TrudyJ (from chicklit and NaNo)