The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler
Published by HarperCollins ebooks in October 2009 (first published 1999)
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Mystery
Buy: Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble
Flannery Culp wants you to know the whole story of her spectacularly awful senior year. Tyrants, perverts, tragic crushes, gossip, cruel jokes, and the hallucinatory effects of absinthe — Flannery and the seven other friends in the Basic Eight have suffered through it all. But now, on tabloid television, they’re calling Flannery a murderer, which is a total lie. It’s true that high school can be so stressful sometimes. And it’s true that sometimes a girl just has to kill someone. But Flannery wants you to know that she’s not a murderer at all — she’s a murderess.
This was Daniel Handler’s, aka Lemony Snicket, debut novel. It’s a character driven novel (as opposed to plot driven) about a group of high schoolers that call themselves the Basic Eight. The book is epistolary, we’re reading the narrator’s journal as she counts down to Halloween, the night she murders her crush, Adam. She tells us in the beginning that she’s writing from prison, so we know she’s been caught and is serving time for her crime. She wants you to know that the media is wrong wrong wrong about her and the Basic Eight.
This is Flannery Culp, a wholly unreliable narrator. But she makes sure you know she’s unreliable, she tells you several times that she’s editing and rewriting her journal, that what you’re reading isn’t necessarily exactly what happened. And if it happened, it might’ve taken place at another point in time. You can’t trust Flannery, that’s part of what makes this novel interesting and fun to read.
Today’s the day. This is the day that Flannery Culp commits the crime. I can almost feel the itch on your noggin as you scratch your head, reader. You didn’t think it was this early, did you? You thought it was around Halloween. How confusing. Could it be that our narrator is unreliable?
Despite the dark nature of this book, it’s written very humorously. Flannery’s got a sarcastic tone throughout the book and it got a chuckle out of me several times. Flannery also includes transcripts of discussions about her in books and on TV and talk shows (a fictional Oprah show) to criticize them and call them out on their inaccuracies in the portrayal of her and her friends. She also puts study questions and topics at the end of each section, as if it was a text book. In the beginning these seem pretty reasonable, but as the diary continues on I found that they get more and more deranged and frantic sounding. I enjoyed that development, like witnessing her spiraling into madness.
The questions start out innocent and reasonable like this: “What do you already know about the Basic Eight? How will it affect what you read here? Discuss.” Turning into slightly more humorous like this: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a dinner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?” And then: “Do you think Mr. Carr did the right thing with Flannery? Do you think Flannery did the right thing with Mr. Carr? Do you think Natasha did the right thing with Mr. Carr? Do you think Natasha did the right thing with Flannery? Do you think Flannery did the right thing with Natasha? Do you think Adam did the right thing with Flannery? Do you think Adam did the right thing with Kate? Do you think the Basic Eight did the right thing with Flannery? Do you think Mrs. State did the right thing with Flannery? Do you generally do the right thing?”
Woah, Flannery, take a breath. Sit down.
Even though Flannery is the narrator and the one who commits a murder, the most interesting and most real character in this book (to me) is Natasha, Flannery’s best friend. I can imagine her perfectly in my mind, with her flashy clothing, straight black hair, and her flask that either contains alcohol or just water. I liked Natasha a lot, especially towards the end when we realize why she is the way she is.
Like I said, this story is character driven. There’s not much plot, or action, we’re reading to figure out what happened to make Flannery kill Adam and how it happened and to get there we have to go through a lot of ordinary days and classes and dinner parties. It was a bit slow up until the last 30%, where things really started to twist and turn and shake up everything we thought we knew. The ending was addicting, I was hooked. It was around that 70% mark that I started to realize what was probably going on. Oh, Flannery. I knew it, I get it now.
All in all this is an interesting book with a good plot twist in the end. And still it leaves you wondering who to trust. Flannery leaves us with a few final questions.
Do you think Flannery’s version of the story of the Basic Eight is correct? Why or why not? Do you think Dr. Tert’s version of the story of the Basic Eight is correct? Why or why not? Was Dr. Tert even there? Why or why not? Why or why not? Why or why not?
(Trigger warning for sexual assault.)
I’m in a dangerous-criminal-teens phase. I’m reading Dangerous Girls soon and I can’t wait. Do you know any similar books? Have you read this one?