All The Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler
All The Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler delivers on the promise of its clickbaity title with a variety of sexual musings and seduction artist field reports. Cole is a high school student who hops from girl to girl with a frequency that earns him an unflattering reputation. His sexual conquests continue until he meets that “one special girl” who is, of course, different from all the rest: Grisaille, a Portuguese exchange student. His attachment for her grows in their monogamous relationship, and in this trustful dynamic he reaches an unprecedented level of vulnerability. Once deep within this precarious bond he starts incurring some wounds of his own and is forced to reckon with the errors of his previous ways.
Is Daniel Handler actually publishing a novel with this already-been-done plot structure? Perhaps this novel is aimed at teenage readers, who could be experiencing this story arc for the first time. Except the novel’s structure complicates who the target audience might be. Consider the storytelling format, which reads as a series of bursts: abrupt scenes of dialogue and quick passages that read like journal entries. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this storytelling method, and in the book’s early phases it actually makes a lot of sense. It appropriately reflects how Cole hops from one sexual endeavor to the next with minimal respect or consideration. If this was the intent, we would expect the scene lengths to dilate over time as Cole falls deeper into Grisaille’s focused orbit. But this never occurs. Realistically, there aren’t a lot of teen readers in 2017 with a palette for postmodern impressionistic storytelling that borders on stream-of-consciousness.
One wonders if Handler is attempting to hide a lackluster story behind stale gimmicks, such as the following “literary device:” During Cole’s promiscuity phase, all of his hookups are with girls whose names start with the letter A. Cole, nor anyone else, ever call attention to this conspicuous naming pattern. The shtick continues until he meets that girl above all girls, who breaks the pattern of monotony (the aforementioned Grisaille). The use of this conspicuous symbolism device is rather shameless.
If this book has a layer of value, it’s the subplot involving Alec, Cole’s close friend. Alec is introduced early on, ostensibly to serve the story’s frame narrative. Many of the sexual tales Cole recounts take the form of instant message conversations with Alec, who’s quite curious to get the juicy details (all the dirty parts). Cole’s initially reluctant to divulge many details, but gradually lowers his guard. The two even begin watching pornography together—as a practical study tool, they initially assure each other—but One Thing Leads To Another. So begins their tryst, and while this unusual relationship is clearly meaningful to him, Cole-the-narrator consistently downplays it by pushing it to the margins of his consciousness. This is a logical response mechanism from a vulnerable teenager in a world that certainly has a ways to go in accepting the gay lifestyle. So while this component does add an interesting layer that subtly permeates the Grisaille storyline to come, it’s certainly not enough to rescue the book as a whole.
At 135 pages, All the Dirty Parts isn’t long. There are sometimes as many as three or four micro-scenes per page, and each scene break is bookended by three blank lines: a blank line, a couple of asterix-bullets, then another blank line. This degree of white space padding is pretty audacious for a book that to begin with has a small page size, a not-tiny font, and generous line spacing. Yet after all this, it doesn’t clear a buck fifty in total page count? Of course there’s no definitive word count or typesetting standard to which all books should adhere. But in All The Dirty Parts, readers are asked to pay full ticket price for a “novel” that, had it been formatted as a straightforward paperback, may not have cleared fifty pages.
If anything, this story belongs in a larger collection of novellas, and the rest of the set would need to be pretty good to compensate for the forgettable whimper of this one. Sex certainly sells, and the title and synopsis (plus a little bit of authorial name recognition) might compel some readers to make the financial plunge. To be clear, this story is not a work of fanfiction-esque cheap titillation. Handler certainly can form an artful sentence, and there may very well be solid work in his past and future catalogue. Still, All The Dirty Parts does nothing to elevate our understanding of how teenagers process infatuation in this or any generation. One can’t help but speculate if Handler churned out this story lest he allow a gap in his publishing resume to grow larger.