As with Miranda July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, Daniel Handler’s fifth novel under his own name (in addition to the great many he has written under the name Lemony Snicket) comes emblazoned with cover quotes from people who we want to trust (Neil Gaiman, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jess Walter, Jennifer Egan) – people who have worked themselves up into something of a froth over the book. Such is their froth that you can’t help but work up a lather yourself. If you take one thing away from this review, it is this: raising expectations in this way rarely does a book a good service. One careful and judicious cover quote from someone not given to cover quotes (Michel Faber, say, or Bret Easton Ellis, rather than say, Roddy Doyle or – sorry Neil, you’re becoming a bit ubiquitous – Neil Gaiman) is all you need. A half dozen, or more, split across a cover that is half jacket and half bare book would need to surround the kind of book dynamite that, the older you get, you find more rarely. We are Pirates is not book dynamite. We are Pirates is for the most part alright, but the expectations generated by the cover quotes serve to make you view the book more harshly than you otherwise would. For the benefit of future generations: all cover quotes do is say: this writer has a lot of friends, here is a selection of what those friends have to say. Daniel Handler’s mates love We are Pirates. This much we know.
The opening of the book is somewhat tricksy. There’s an I talking to you about guy called Phil Needle. Phil Needle is a radio producer who once maybe could’ve been someone but who is now probably comfortable and somewhat unhappily settled in a rut. At the time the story is written (Handler has a sweet tic that recalls Snicket at his best, throughout the book explicating on things contemporary readers will know about as if he is writing for future generations – it will make you smile), Phil is looking to get a show commissioned about an old blues guy. Needle’s boss, Leonard Steed – someone Phil is keen to keep on the right side of – wants to be impressed. Elsewhere, though Needle’s daughter Gwen is stealing from a local pharmacy. Of course she gets caught. Of course she doesn’t think the punishment is fair. Gwen is a teenage girl and Handler does teenage girls well. Credit where credit is due. Handler also does the kinds of drifty middle aged sorts that Jess Walter has made his own quite well too. Phil is forced to take a business trip in the company of his new (young, pretty) assistant. Phil is tormented by longing. Meanwhile Gwen. Gwen is forced to give up her time to read in an old folk’s home. She reads to a man called Errol who has trouble with his memory and digs pirate books. Gwen comes to dig pirate books too. Eventually, she and a friend and Errol and a couple of other people take to the high seas. As pirates. This gentle, whimsical, dainty slice of Americana becomes somewhat surprisingly bloodthirsty for a bit. You can’t help but wonder how the young teenage girl and her friend will get out of it.
All of which may sound intriguing. It certainly did to me. I thought this might be a little bit A Hologram for the King by way of The Wild Things. We are Pirates is certainly a bit Eggers-ish at times, more Eggers-ish than any other writer. But there are problems and the problems are quite hard to put your finger on. Part of it is to do with the construction. Handler moves fitfully between Phil and Gwen, so we sometimes get more Gwen than Phil. Of the two, Phil is the more interesting character but you know (you just know) that Handler is loving his contemporary pirate shenanigans. Teenage girls are always more interesting to themselves than anyone else. Perhaps Handler is just too good a writer to turn his hand to teenage girls or perhaps the fact I have a teenage daughter of my own is enough to make me not want to spend too much time in Gwen’s company. Again, credit where credit is due: Handler has created the exemplar of teenage girls everywhere. But man is she irritating. The bloodthirsty element, when it arrives, is (genuinely) surprising as I said, and I’ve asked myself if it unseats the book from the rails I thought it was travelling on (and whether that unseating changed my feelings towards the book); but I have to say no. What it did was bring my feelings to a sharp point: I just didn’t get along with Gwen and the pirate element. I’d have preferred a book about Phil, in which we maybe heard about the pirate element via him.
We wanted to like it. We wanted to agree with Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon (whose Gentleman of the Road is similarly flawed), Dave Eggers and Jennifer Egan (and Jess Walter and Matt Haig and Russell T Davies). By the time the tricksy opening resolved itself in the final pages of the book, we just didn’t care anymore. We just wanted it to end. Experience has taught us that books we leave in this way don’t tend to be books we come back to. Like bitter break-ups, we fix our eyes on the future (or the next book we are going to read) and try to put it behind us. We’d recommend you don’t even set foot in these choppy waters. We did it so you don’t have to.
Any Cop?: It’s yo ho NO and a barrel of hard tack for Handler on this one.