NASTYbook. By Barry Yourgrau. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $11.99.
Another NASTYbook: The Curse of the Tweeties. By Barry Yourgrau. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $11.99.
It’s Lemony Snicket’s fault, really. The success of the pseudonymous author’s A Series of Unfortunate Events spawned imitators galore, all of them trying to create novels in which bad things happen to kids but everything works out fairly well, if rather oddly, in the end. Barry Yourgrau, though, takes the whole phenomenon in a different direction in NASTYbook. It’s not a novel: Yourgrau’s book is a series of unconnected short and short-short stories, with everything nasty (or, more often, simply weird) that’s going to happen occurring in just a few pages. It’s also laid out in a deliberately strange way, with the pages bound inside the covers backwards and upside-down, and just in case you think that’s a printing or assembly error, when you go to the back cover and turn it over, you’ll find the question, “Say, do you always read books this way?”
The stories – 43 of them – rush by so quickly that you can read one or two, or maybe three, during a TV commercial. Yourgrau certainly understands fast pacing (he’s been on MTV and in a music video, among other things). He understands mild creepiness, too – nothing strong enough to upset kids too much, or make their parents decide not to buy the book, but just enough so there’s no doubt that this is anything but a goody-two-shoes kind of book. There’s a goof-off guardian angel who leaves a man suspended in midair; a witch who goes online to lure victims, one of whom is a man whose head ends up covered with eyeballs; a werewolf who makes a documentary about himself; a movie star who turns into a gerbil; a gangster whose body parts keep disappearing, until all that is left of him is one eyebrow; a girl who mistakenly gets on a train that stops only once every hundred years; and much more. The nice thing about NASTYbook is that if you don’t like a story, just blink twice and it’s time for the next one. The little oddities of typesetting, such as crooked or upside-down story titles, come across as just part of Yourgrau’s skewed little world.
Having gotten the short-form nasties out of his system, Yourgrau apparently decided that he would try to be a bit Snicketish after all. Another NASTYbook is a full-fledged novel, and it’s very decidedly in the unfortunate-events mode, opening on a summer afternoon, “just the perfect setting for an early-supper family picnic… Of course it’s also the perfect setting for terror, horror, and bloodcurdling tragedy to strike. But we get ahead of ourselves.” In truth, this novel is as episodic as its 43-story predecessor, and reads more like a series of mini-adventures than a single, longer one. There are goblins that take offense and kidnap the mom of the family; there’s a horde of Assassins; there are fake teeth that Rollo, the boy hero, needs to help him find Fairyland; and there are dreams, and dreams within dreams, and manga comics that turn, later in the book, into sequences actually presented as manga comics rather than straight narrative; and there are, of course, off-kilter chapter numbers, things that look like stains on the pages, and other kinds of odd stuff. Oh, and some really bad yodeling. There’s nothing the slightest bit profound, or even meaningful, here, but there’s plenty that’s strange and offbeat and, if not necessarily nasty (and certainly not NASTY), is at least exceedingly peculiar. In a good way.