The Basic Eight
by Daniel Handler
Thomas Dunne Books, 1999

The Basic Eight was Daniel Handler's first novel, a rather dense work perhaps best placed in 'general fiction', although it has aspects of mystery, satire, and literary fiction.

Flannery Culp is in the hoosegow for joining (and/or founding) an satanic cult and murdering a classmate. Her story has already been on the news networks, made the talk show circuits, and been the subject of some pop-psychology and true crime novels. Now she's going to set the record straight.

For the most part, this is the story of a Very Bad Semester of high school. Flannery and her friends are intelligent, upper class snobs, who enjoy discussing literature, eating fine food, and listening to classical music. They also enjoy gossip, lots and lots of coffee, and rock music; they are high school students, after all. Things go quickly downhill in a lot of different ways... first staring with the expected teen drama of dating and too much alcohol, and then becoming quickly more sinister when Flannery's teacher rapes her and the gang takes up absinthe as a recreational drug. Things escalate from there.

This book drags on forever. There is a lot going on and the story is fairly engaging, but Flannery (who writes this in the first person) is a very verbose narrator, and is indeed a teenager with a serious snob complex. The story is full of sarcasm, satire, and study guides (yes, really), among other odds and ends, but it all gets buried in the overall wordiness, the careful recounting of minutia, and an overabundance of overdone parodying of high school and the mass media.

But that's just my review... and looking at the internets, there are lots of people who really liked this book. And not without reason. Flannery is an openly unreliable narrator, letting us know that in addition to the overall unrolling mystery (for us, the reader) of what the media storm was all about and why Flannery is in prison, there is the additional mystery of what is actually real, and the knowledge that whatever we deduce may very well be wrong. Apparently a lot of people enjoyed Flannery's snarky jabs at various teachers, peers, and media personalities, which are indeed often clever, although perhaps a bit overabundant after 300 pages. And, of course, Handler is an expert at doing weird things to narrative flow, writing style, and layout, which is still apparent no matter how many teen-aged girls he hides behind. So your mileage may vary.

ISBN-10: 0060733861
ISBN-13: 978-0060733865

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