If you don’t know, Daniel Handler is the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, aka Lemony Snicket. I love love LOVE A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I haven’t read anything else by Handler. His latest novel, All the Dirty Parts, was recently published by Bloomsbury, so I picked up a copy to decide: To read or not to read?
“Cole is a boy in high school. He runs cross country, he sketches, he jokes around with friends. But none of this quite matters next to the allure of sex. ‘Let me put it this way,’ he says. ‘Draw a number line, with zero is you never think about sex and ten is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.’
“Cole fantasizes about whomever he’s looking at. He consumes and shares pornography. And he sleeps with a lot of girls, which is beginning to earn him a not-quite-savory reputation around school. This leaves him adrift with only his best friend for company, and then something startling starts to happen between them that might be what he’s been after all this time—and then he meets Grisaille.
“All The Dirty Parts is an unblinking take on teenage desire in a culture of unrelenting explicitness and shunted communication, where sex feels like love, but no one knows what love feels like. With short chapters in the style of Jenny Offill or Mary Robison, Daniel Handler gives us a tender, brutal, funny, intoxicating portrait of an age when the lens of sex tilts the world. ‘There are love stories galore,’ Cole tells us, ‘This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.’” —Bookshop
Okay…so I’m not dying to read a book about a teenage boy’s thoughts about sex, but I’m also not going to say I’d never read it, especially if it’s written by the author who wrote one of my favorite series of books. I’m always open to reading about other perspectives and characters who are different from me. Let’s dig in and see what this book might have to offer.
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There isn’t much to the cover—it’s words on a (slightly) textured white background. Given the title, it implies that the “dirty parts” are so dirty that they can’t be shown on the cover—you’ll have to look inside to find them. The cover gives no hints at all as to what this book might be about. I’m guessing the success of the design rides on readers’ familiarity with Daniel Handler’s name, but if people don’t recognize the name, this is kind of a fail for a book cover.
(On another note, I don’t like that the publisher’s name, Bloomsbury, was tacked on to the cover in a tiny font size underneath “Handler.” It doesn’t go well with the rest of the cover.)
“Let me put it this way: this is how much I think about sex. Draw a number line, with zero is, you never think about sex and ten is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.”
Okay, so that’s two lines, but they are supposed to be read as one line. The point is: Right away, we know this book is about sex. The word is in the first two sentences three times. Immediately, you know that if reading about sex or sex-related topics makes you uncomfortable, this book is not for you. It’s very generous of Handler to make this point so clear right away; it will save a lot of distress for anyone who picks up the book expecting (for some reason) something comparable to A Series of Unfortunate Events.
First four pages
Four pages into the book, the style and structure seem to be standalone, confessional entries. The book (so far) is structured in sections, often one or two paragraphs, focused tightly on one concept: Girls as motivation to go to school. A rip in a girl’s jeans. A weird arm-as-male-genitals metaphor.
In just four pages, I haven’t really gotten to anything substantial. It’s meandering, showing me around Cole’s mind, but I don’t know where the book is going. I mean, I know where the book is going based on the summary, but immediately, Handler doesn’t build toward anything.
I do, however, learn what the basic theme or concept of this book is, at least from Cole’s point of view. Cole writes: “There are love stories galore, and we all know them. This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.” This book, then, is seen as a non-love story, a story that instead focuses on the gritty details of a blossoming sexual relationship.
Cole’s voice is ungrammatical, conversational, and honest, but it’s also very elevated and literary. Handler uses metaphors—non-cliche metaphors, yay!— to describe the narrator’s feelings about girls: “Think of the girls, I tell myself, like cookies in the oven to lure me out of bed” and “…trying to keep it together while my whole body rattles like a squirrel in a tin can.” Overall, Handler’s use of style and language indicates to me that he’s trying to pull this off the young adult shelf and talk about a teenager’s sexuality in a more literary way.
Our main character, Cole, is comfortable talking about sex, but he is also intelligent and self-aware enough to distance himself from his thoughts and evaluate them. An example of what I’m talking about is found on page five: “Wish I could explain, how these things feel like seduction, even though I know they aren’t.” This cognitive ability to recognize, “All these random things girls do turn me on, but although that is the effect, it’s not their intention” is not common among teenagers (and several grown men, apparently…).
The self-awareness borders on the unbelievable, as teenagers typically aren’t this capable of separating their own thoughts from the reality of the world. But it also makes for a more interesting book, as it would be a harder sell if Handler wrote a book that was just about a teenage boy’s ideas about his sexuality without any self-awareness or introspection.
To read or not to read
Overall, I’m interested in Cole, and the book seems like an interesting, quick read at only 134 pages. I would read this, but only under certain conditions. I might buy the paperback if I haven’t read it before that comes out. I would consider reading this in a bookstore (or possibly from a library!), but I wouldn’t spend money on the hardback copy of All the Dirty Parts.