All the Dirty Parts - Daniel Handler

Cole is a boy in high school. He runs cross country, he sketches, he jokes around with friends. But none of this quite matters next to the allure of sex. "Let me put it this way," he says. "Draw a number line, with zero is you never think about sex and ten is, it's all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex."

Cole fantasizes about whomever he's looking at. He consumes and shares pornography. And he sleeps with a lot of girls, which is beginning to earn him a not-quite-savory reputation around school. This leaves him adrift with only his best friend for company, and then something startling starts to happen between them that might be what he's been after all this time-and then he meets Grisaille.


Where to begin this review?

Daniel Handler has certainly done something different with this book. Though I realize that discussions will rage for ages as to whether or not this book should be classified as Adult or YA, I think this is truly a crossover novel. 

Adult readers will likely see it as nostalgic, while teen readers (male readers at least) will likely see it as a mirror, at least in some respect. No matter the gender of the reader, though, this book will certainly give its audience much to ponder about what matters in the world regarding sex and treatment of sexual partners. Discussions of the audience will certainly keep librarians, scholars, and readers wondering for some time (particularly since Bloomsbury seems to be trying to remind people that Handler is Lemony Snicket, though there is very little likelihood of a crossover in readership between A Series of Unfortunate Events and this novel.)

This book is pared down, quite literally, to all the dirty parts. The narrative could have included a lot more detail surrounding these bits and pieces (and in some ways, I wish it had included more), but there is still a rise-and-fall narrative arc which will hopefully encourage young readers to see how the double-standards entrenched in society can lead to negative social/interpersonal consequences. The ending (not to spoil) isn't exactly happy, but while sex in this book ultimately leads to a negative conclusion, it is not the sex itself that is deemed to be immoral or problematic. Instead, through Cole's reckless treatment of women (and men), Handler portrays the loneliness that comes from treating sexual partners as objects, or as expendable.

The way that the book uses vignettes is, in my opinion, effective if one looks to the core of the narrative and reads between the lines. What is perhaps the most effective component of this book is the way that Cole's sexual exploits across gender lines are not in themselves treated with any disdain in the text, even though Alec is ultimately left stranded because of Cole's sudden obsession with Grisaille. What is interesting about the relationship between Cole and Grisaille is that Grisaille is a very sexual being and unlike many novels about girls (where they are often very much less sexual than their male counterparts) it is not treated in a negative way. 

One particular thing did bother me about the portrayals of sexuality within the book, however, and that was the different treatment in how explicit Handler was willing to get when describing sex between Cole and Alec vs Cole and any of the girls he was with. While he talks about oral sex with Grisaille in great detail, sex with Alec is almost entirely suggestive, with little detail of the encounter. Considering the point of the book and the fact that it's about, literally, all the "dirty" parts, I am disappointed that Handler shows such a difference in what he is willing to describe between sex with a girl vs sex with a guy. Though I understand that narratively speaking, this could be seen as Cole simply being uncomfortable because it's his best friend, etc., I'm still torn.

Cole is not a hero. He is pretty much as anti-hero as they come (pun intended). He's not a model citizen, he behaves questionably at best, and the novel pretty much chronicles his downfall due to the predatory nature of his sexual exploits. He's touted on the back cover as an all-too-normal teen, but at the same time, his friends tend to distinguish him from other guys at school who don't have the same negative reputation. 

Another element of the novel that I found to be intriguing was that Handler discusses porn, but it's not all fun and masturbation. Cole himself even laments the unrealistic things happening on his screen. Porn is a reality and Handler certainly notes its prominence, but the narrative is also not advocating for porn or glorifying it. Rather the book speaks to ways in which an obsession with porn can lead to a distancing of oneself from friends and family.

Finally, I am a bit unsure as to whether this novel is attempting to normalize Cole's type of sexual experience, or if he is being held up as an out of the ordinary example. On the jacket copy, he is noted as all-too-normal, but then in the novel, everyone talks about him as having a reputation, and not necessarily a good one, which to me would indicate that even among other very sexual guys at his school, he is seen as extraordinarily sexual. I suppose it will be up to the individual reader to explore their own relationship with sex in comparison to Cole's. I just feel the need to point this out, as I think it's an area that could make for rich discussion.

To some, the amount of sex in this book will seem excessive. But if you shave down any particular thing from a year and write only those parts, it can seem excessive (a novel about a year-in-the-life that contains only parts about teeth brushing would seem ridiculously obsessed with the act of teeth brushing, for instance.) I think this is an intriguing book that approaches some particularly tricky subjects. Although I think there was opportunity for more fleshing out of some characters (the book is only 134 pages!), the overall experience, for me, was positive. 

Recommended (with Reservations)

NOTE: Anyone planning to recommend this book to a younger reader should take the time to check out the book first, and should be aware of the maturity level of the reader in question, or else the experience will likely not turn out too well.

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