I’m a huge fan of Lemony Snicket but until We Are Pirates, I had never read a book by the man behind the man, Daniel Handler. If you’ve read A Series of Unfortunate Events, then you’re familiar with Handler’s tongue-in-cheek style and ethereal interpretation of what the fourth wall is. As a youth, those characteristics pulled me ever deeper into his writing.
They’re all present in this novel, though in new iterations. Handler’s narrator is a sneaky investigator attending an open house at the main characters’ (the Needle family) who finds himself enjoying the pants-up, lid-down peace of Phil Needle’s personal toilet where he recounts (imagines?) the events of the last few months. Handler is true to his wry, biting sense of humor and satire throughout the novel, and it is indeed “strange,” as Neil Gaiman comments in his blurb. Handler even employs his familiar technique of phrase repetition to tie his themes together, one example being multiple uses of “during this era of American history.”
All this was present and yet, this novel fell short. It kept my attention while I was reading, but once I set the book down, I didn’t think about it again until I picked it up again.
Amidst the general okayness of We Are Pirates, Handler did manage to touch on a few interesting points. He talks a lot about the state of American society, neither condemning nor praising it, and that, I feel, is what the book is really about. Within that theme he discusses adolescence, individuality, ageism, aging, Alzheimer’s, generation gaps, and much more. What drew my attention most, though, was his (scant but sharp) look at racism. From describing (quite accurately) the way white people try to convince themselves they are prejudiceless, to pointing out that most of the characters are white, Handler’s comments are very conscious and quite hard to interpret. “Just about everyone one else, by the way, in this book is white,” he says, the non-white character being a man from Haiti whose boss thinks he’s Jamaican. So Daniel Handler calls out novelists writing only white characters, but it’s unclear whether he’s satirizing the situation or merely admitting to its perpetuation. Either way, his comments are worth noting after the joke he made following Jacqueline Woodson’s speech at the 2014 National Book Awards.
I did laugh, I did like the characters. We Are Pirates is absurd, honest, and brutal–all the things it promised to be. But there wasn’t the magic that makes a good novel a great novel. Maybe I misread this one, but for me it wasn’t the novel that Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and Russel T. Davies promised it would be.