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In which Netty remembers why high school can sometimes be murder …

November 2, 2010

First-time authors and rejected manuscripts often go hand in hand – like rock ‘n’ roll, strawberries and cream, or Ernie and Bert (ahem). Horror doyen Steven King has sold something in the realm of 500 million books during his long and storied career, but his first novel Carrie was rejected dozens of times before finally making it into print. Similarly, J. K. Rowlings was turned down time and again before her first Harry Potter book was read by a publishing CEO’s eight-year-old daughter, who then begged her father to put it out. (And 400 million copies later, I hope the kid continues to get a decent raise in her pocket money each year … )

And then there is Daniel Handler. Before he unleashed his wildly successful Lemony Snicket books on the world, American writer Handler traipsed a novel written under his own moniker around the traps. He has said that that book – The Basic Eight – was rejected 37 times before it was finally picked up by HarperCollins and published in 1998.

Just as Andy chose to dissect a current book in his last Revisited selection, I too thought I might tread a more recent path this time around. I first read The Basic Eight about six years ago, picking it up at a bookstore for no other reason than I liked the cover and found the back blurb enticing enough to shell out my dosh and explore it further. Since then I’ve read it a few more times, even selecting it as my book group choice a couple of years ago – primarily to see what  my friends would think of it (they must be way smarter than me, ‘cos they got all the plot twists miles before I did).

The book opens with its narrator Flannery Culp, in gaol for the murder of a fellow student, musing over plans to edit and release her journals for publication to tell her side of a story that has been appropriated – and, according to her, blown wildly out of proportion – by the media in the year since she was incarcerated. She revisits two letters and a postcard sent to said fellow student, Adam State, while she is on summer vacation in Rome with her parents, then the diaries open at the beginning of her senior year at Roewer High School in San Francisco (said to be quite closely based on Handler’s alma mater Lowell High). Flan introduces her group of precocious, often pretentious friends – a clique who call themselves the Basic Eight – and her journal details the mundane aspects of everyday school life, the relationships, alliances and dalliances between her circle and charts the course of her ultimately fatal crush on Adam.

The reader is constantly reminded of the editing process going on as the journals unfold, with present-day Flan inserting herself into the narrative, alluding to and passing comment on events that have not yet transpired. It also adds to the sense that Flan is not the most reliable of chroniclers, especially as events start to spiral out of control and the repeated reliance on repetition casts increasing doubt on the narrative’s accuracy.

Handler litters the book with skewered, satirical references to popular culture – I was mildly amused by the gang’s fondness for a band called QED and its albums “Prattle And Hum” and “Gurgle And Buzz” (and its songs “I Keep Finding What I’m Not Looking For” and “With You With You”). An adjunct to the diaries is the post-gaoling dissection of the murders on the “Winnie Moprah” show, with running commentary from the deliberately dubious and self-proclaimed “family experts” Peter Pusher and Eleanor Tert (the latter contributes the closing epilogue to Flan’s reworked journals). Selected vocabulary notes and study questions are included at the end of a number of chapters in a clever mimicking of high school traditions and tribulations.  Handler is also a big fan of puns – Flan and her friends drink lattes in coffee shops with names like Death Before Decaf, Well-Kept Grounds and Bean And Nothingness – and he gives Flan no end of dry, cracking one-liners, often self-deprecating.

The back-cover blurb on my edition describes The Basic Eight as a cross between “90210” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. A fair enough comparison, but for mine it strays more into “Heathers” territory – right down to the role played by a mallet in both that movie and the book. It’s darkly comic, it’s over-the-top, it’s confusing, it’s a big, often messy book – especially in the second half, mirroring the mind and the mental disintegration of its narrator. The action climaxes at a pivotal Halloween party at V-’s house in one of the most jaw-droppingly frenzied, hallucinogenic passages I have ever read. Even though the reader has long known the crux of the story, there is no easy resolution to follow through and still enough plot twists and turn to maintain interest – and incredulity.

For me, the testament to a really good book is not if I want to read it again (how many times throughout the three years of our ANRC blog have Andy and I professed to “wanting” to read a certain book again?), but if I actually do so. And while The Basic Eight is not the best book I have read in recent years – not by a long shot – it is the one I have returned to most often. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – sorry, mocha latte (and from memory, the book group as a whole wasn’t a big wrap for it), but there’s something in these pages that has kept bringing me back to it every couple of years or so. Now, for someone to actually exercise those film rights that have been optioned and turn The Basic Eight into a movie that could give even the cult classic “Heathers” a run for its money …

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