Book review — All the Dirty Parts, by Daniel Handler

Anyone who picks up a book by US author Daniel Handler will immediately have a fair idea what it’s going to be about.

Just as the children’s books that he wrote and published under the Lemony Snicket pseudonym document a series of unfortunate events that befall the orphaned Baudelaire children, his new novel for adults, All the Dirty Parts, is a catalogue of, well, all the dirty parts in the life of a teenage boy.

Written in the first person through short ‘episodes’ of prose, All the Dirty Parts incorporates graphic accounts of protagonist Cole’s sexual encounters and fantasies – and it’s definitely not for children.

Handler’s explicit descriptions of Cole’s many and varied carnal experiences are utterly convincing, albeit at times confronting.

But it is the indifferent selfishness with which the sex-obsessed teen targets girls for seduction that is most alarming. Are Cole’s obsessions indicative of the base preoccupations of all heterosexual teenage boys, or are his attitudes symptomatic of the systemic objectivisation of girls and women extant in every tier of society?

Cole judges and categorises girls according to their physical attributes and their potential for satisfying his lustful impulses, giving no consideration to possible adverse impacts on the girls he manipulates and conquers. He’s also not above taking advantage of his best friend, Alec, who is grappling with his own sexual identity and impulses.

Yet All the Dirty Parts is much more than a catalogue of a schoolboy’s grubby exploits, with Handler expertly and intelligently developing the plot to accurately examine that most powerful force of human nature — desire.

For much of the book, Cole’s disregard for others makes him an unpleasant and unlikeable narrator. Yet, as the story unfolds, and Cole enters a relationship with a girl who possesses many of his own attitudes and inclinations, Handler imbues his young protagonist with a subtle vulnerability that elicits an unexpected degree of sympathy and reminds us that we were once egocentric teens too — even if we didn’t act on our impulses as frequently as Cole.

Simmering beneath the overt story of an adolescent’s erotic awakening is Handler’s deft exploration of the complex issues of sexual identity, underage sex, societal double standards and the ready accessibility of pornography, each of which impacts on the personal development, friendships and behaviour of his characters and reflects the challenges facing contemporary youth on a broader scale.

Potentially uncomfortable reading for parents of teenagers, and likely to be clandestinely devoured by adolescentss under the bedsheets, All the Dirty Parts is a revelatory and enlightening depiction of one boy’s transition toward manhood.

  • All the Dirty Parts, by Daniel Handler, is published by Bloomsbury, rrp $24.00. My advance review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Here’s the blurb from Bloomsbury:

From bestselling, award-winning author Daniel Handler, a gutsy, exciting novel that looks honestly at the erotic impulses of an all-too-typical young man.

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.

All the Dirty Parts is an unblinking take on teenage desire in a culture of unrelenting explicitness and shunted communication, where sex feels like love, but no one knows what love feels like. With short chapters in the style of Jenny Offill or Mary Robison, Daniel Handler gives us a tender, brutal, funny, intoxicating portrait of an age when the lens of sex tilts the world. “There are love stories galore,” Cole tells us, “This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.”


2 thoughts on “Book review — All the Dirty Parts, by Daniel Handler

  1. mariemclean says:

    Even before I read your words that it was ‘potentially uncomfortable reading for parents of teenagers’ – that was the exact thought running through my mind. Still, as a parent, it really doesn’t pay to avoid confrontational topics, so I’ll keep an open mind!


  2. Maureen says:

    I suspect that much of the content is an accurate reflection of how so many teenage boys think – although most wouldn’t have the same opportunities to act on those thoughts as Handler’s protagonist (thank goodness!). I’m certainly troubled by the casual disregard with which Cole treats the girls he sizes up, as well as the way the story reflects the ready accessibility of pornography for younger generations. Even with the most stringent parental controls on computers and other electronic devices, it’s still possible for young people to see stuff that we wouldn’t have been exposed to as adolescents. That’s not to say I didn’t sneak a look at the odd racy novel or two as a teenager… This book definitely dishes up plenty of food for thought!


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