Nothing basic about “The Basic Eight”

Between my last post in March about The City of Bones and this one right now, I have probably read about seven books altogether.  However, I refuse to officially classify sexually explicit paranormal romance novels as “real books” (though I love them so!), which means the only book I’m prepared to tell you about today is Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight.  I have been trying to read this book for quite some time, but for some reason I would always put it down again before I had even finished the introduction.  This time around, I was determined to give it a good college try and see it through to the end.

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Jacket photo of The Basic Eight (1998)

The Basic Eight is the debut novel by author Daniel Handler, better known by his pen name Lemony Snicket.  According to Handler, The Basic Eight was rejected by publishers 37 times because of its dark tone and content until finally being published in 1998.  The novel follows a few months of the life of Flannery Culp, a high school senior with an exclusive group of friends who name themselves “The Basic Eight”.  The other members are:  Kate Gordon, the “Queen Bee” type; Lily Chandly, a musician; Douglas Wilde, Flan’s ex and Lily’s current boyfriend; V___, whose name has been witheld under her rich family’s insistence; Jennifer Rose Milton, whose name is so beautiful that it must always be written out in full; Gabriel Gallon, a very kind boy in love with Flan; Natasha Hyatt, Flan’s outrageous and gorgeous best friend.  Flora Habstat is also mentioned (with derision) as a kind of extraneous member of the group.

Flannery and her friends come off as privileged and bored: they host high-brow dinner parties, form an exclusive Opera Club at school, and experiment with absinthe.  The novel begins with Flannery’s love letters to her high school crush, Adam State, while vacationing in Europe over the summer, and reaches a pretty horrifying conclusion in which the lives of “The Basic Eight” are forever changed by revealed secrets, self-discoveries, and murder.  The novel is structured as Culp’s personal diary, which she is revising and editing from prison a few years after the events which put her there.  In the Introduction,Flannery explains:

“This is not some true-crime tell-all.  This is my actual journal, with everything I wrote at the time, edited by me.  The revisions are minor; I only changed things when I felt that I wasn’t really thinking something that I wrote at the time, and probably would have thought something else….” (pg. viii)

There is a massive, mind-screwing revelation towards the end of the book that I can’t share here because it’s a doozy, and it would just ruin everything for first-time readers.  I CAN tell you that Flannery makes no secret of the fact that she was convicted of murdering Adam State.  Yes, the crush she wrote love letters to from Italy.  The violence of the murder is cheerfully horrifying, and before the revelation I can’t share, I actually kind of thought he deserved it a little bit.  I realize that Flannery isn’t trustworthy as a narrator but, as she tells it, that kid had it coming.  I would also like to say that Handler is quite masterful in how he depicts Flannery’s alcohol and absinthe-induced intoxication.  Having never actually tried absinthe myself, I almost feel like I already know what might happen to me if I did.

There isn’t very much on the internet about this book (and it feels kind of cool to read something for once that not everyone and their dog has heard of), but I did find a pretty cool website that helps break down some of the elements for analysis.  I kind of wish I had seen this list of tropes before I even started the book, as I would have paid more attention to a few things as I read it.  Then again, reading it first would have ruined IT, the mind-screwing revelation.  Having finished the novel, the tropes listed on this site that resonate the most would probably be: the “all love is unrequited”, the “Chekhov’s gun”, the “ending changes everything”, the “mind screw”, and the “take that”.  I list the “take that” trope here because it was fun trying to figure out who some of the pop icons were supposed to be in real life.  I’m certain “Winnie Moprah” is a play on Oprah Winfrey, but I have no idea who “Dr. Eleanor Tert” or the band “Darling Mud” are supposed to be in the real world.

Given the nature of the most important, final revelation of this novel, it definitely needs a second read.  As it is, I can’t decide if I actually really love this book for its complexity and cleverness, or loathe it entirely for messing with my head and changing absolutely everything that I believed for 368 pages.  Knowing what I know now, it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and catch all the hidden clues along the way.  And maybe figure out if “Darling Mud” is really based on a real-life band….

Up next: I really should re-read The Great Gatsby before the film comes out.

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