The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 16 July 2004

The Basic Eight

by Daniel Handler

Flannery Culp, "Flan" to her friends, is a young woman entering her senior year in high school. Well, that's what she tells us, in retrospect, editing her high school journal some time later while apparently incarcerated. It doesn't take long to find out that a murder has been committed, and who the likely victim will be. Flannery drops extensive hints and foreshadowings throughout the book and in a sarcastic tone that derides the "true-crime" book, and its readers. But, while she gets ahead of herself, a story still unfolds in the heady atmosphere of senior year, that time in which all one's possibilities and hopes seem ready to burst, and in which the mundanities of high school seem the most trivial. Flan returns to school after writing an ill-advised love note to a guy she hardly knows. From that unfolds all the chaotic uncertainty that she has in her life once school starts. She has a circle of friends, all highly intelligent and pretty well-off. Once school starts, her whole life is wrapped up in these seven friends, to the point where her parents utterly vanish and classes seem just an afterthought. But, what would one find in a high school girl's journal? These eight friends form the Basic Eight, a tight-knit group that holds garden parties and who know everything about each other. As their relationships untangle and retangle, and as they try to get through this last year of school, the chaos grows. There is at least one evil teacher. There are shadowy young men who pursue girls in the Basic Eight. And there's Flan and her best friend Natasha, attractive opposites on the loose. The book has a very jittery feel, with several holes and almost stressful to read. But it is witty in a mischievous way. There are gaps, but Handler's trick is placing the tale in the mind of one slightly nutty young woman. The writing is taut and energetic, but it gets crazy and might leave the reader wondering if Handler really caught the voice of a young high school girl. Still, the book has an edgy humor about it (that Handler developed when he adopted his own alter-ego, Lemony Snicket). Memorable.

This book is actually somewhat difficult to summarize. Has the author captured the atmosphere of modern high school? This reader attended Handler's high school and was left unsure. He paints a more or less convincing portrait of certain details, but this isn't the same school. There was a math teacher named Mr. Baker who urged his students to do something. There was a literary magazine called the Myriad. And there were certainly numerous cliques. I might fit most closely into what Handler describes as those science geeks who hung around the bio classroom between classes. Many other details are only thinly disguised, and the school's name could even be taken as a sinister joke. Still, Handler's nervous narrative doesn't feel like that school, out by Lake Merced in San Francisco. But it doesn't have to.

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