Important lessons often take a long time to gestate. I didn’t really understand linear algebra until five years after I first took it – like in many other fields, I had to climb far up the tower to appreciate the foundations. Getting Plato’s Republic took me ten years of fleeting thoughts. Even for movies, forming an opinion sometimes takes me months of rumination.
I’ve recently been thinking about my favorite childhood book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. It seems that it took me nearly fifteen years to understand two of its core lessons. ASOUE is a thirteen-novel Victorian-Gothic black comedy series about three orphans and the uncle trying to steal their inheritance. While the first few novels formulaically follow this premise, the later novels uncover a set of deep conspiracies surrounding their deceased parents and thieving adversaries. As the universe of the story becomes more complex, we realize that it’s not a simple tale of good and evil, and the actions of the protagonists become steeped in moral ambiguity.
I was fifteen years old when I read the thirteenth and final novel, The End. To my endless disappointment, it concluded with nothing. As far as I was concerned, every major question remained open. Even trivially answerable questions, like about the contents of a particular plot MacGuffin, were left cloaked in eternal silence. If anything, the novel added more questions. To a young completionist, this was awfully frustrating.
But as I grew older, my obsessive need for closure waned. As I became busier, I stopped caring about tying up every end. I learned that most people don’t care as much about literal definitions as I do, and that most efforts are not completed but abandoned. In that context, The End made its final lesson a meaningful, if unpleasant one: most ends are left frayed. The world branches forward unpredictably, with unlucky branches dying off – no catharsis, no punctuation, but sparks fizzling out and attentions shifting. Reflecting on the story as an adult, it was the perfect ending to a series about great mysteries and deep ambiguities: most of them stay unresolved forever. And that’s all right.
The other important lesson I took away was one about conflict. The core mysteries of ASOUE concern a metaphorical Volunteer Fire Department that had split into two sides: one starts fires, the other puts them out. Of course, this is enormously contrived. The two organizations are in a symbiotic, but completely pointless relationship: they exist only to nullify each others’ actions. Further, while the two sides are at first presented as morally black-and-white, the reader learns that each side is a bit of a mix.
As an adult, the yin-yang fire departments sound familiar. I’ve learned that in order to give themselves purpose in life, people play games. In a world where we are mostly safe from real war and disease, we instigate new conflicts to keep us busy and to satisfy our primal needs to compete and do battle. If we have nothing to fight for, we create it. Fukuyama realized this, and the danger it poses to our society. And once you realize that most conflicts are not well-reasoned, good-faith differences of opinion but rather arbitrary symbolic battle, then they all wind up looking just as unnecessary and ambiguous as the two volunteer fire departments. Every dispute is sport.
Over the past year, I’ve kept coming back to these two core points of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which went way over my teenage head when I first read them. Now, nearly fifteen years later, not only do they make more sense, but they hold up a mirror to deep truths that I’ve encountered as I’ve learned more about the world. This is the mark of good fiction.