“Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count.” – Heathers, 1988
The cover alone makes allusions to the 1988 film of croquet-playing, murderous high-school teenagers, yet Handler’s delightfully unreliable narrator Flannery Culp and the sharp, black humour creates a novel that is entirely fresh – with its tongue firmly in cheek. In The Basic Eight, Handler doesn’t ever shy away from the murder; it seems inevitable that this group of precocious teenagers, nicknamed The Basic Eight, who are more cultured and intelligent than their contemporaries will wind up committing many dark and disturbing crimes, but it is his clever manipulation of language and repetition coupled with striking descriptions – of first love, of the vertiginously drunken party, of the brutal murder, of the final, shocking twist – that stop this novel descending into cliché riddled melodrama.
The Basic Eight consists of Flannery, our narrator and protagonist; Kate, the garrulous Queen Bee; Jennifer Rose Milton, a girl so beautiful that she can call her mother Maman and no one minds; Gabriel, who Flan believes is the kindest boy in the world; Natasha, who is so glamorous and full of panache , she looks less like a high school student and more like an actress playing a high school student on TV; Lily, a classical musician; Douglas, Flan’s ex-boyfriend; and V_, whose name has been erased from the novel to protect her prominent family. Their exclusive clique holds The Grand Opera Breakfast Club, dinner parties and garden parties, while finding their way through the expected and unexpected pitfalls of senior year in high school, including the maelstrom of underage drinking and sex, attempted rape and corruption, anguish and absinthe. All of this is mirrored with acerbic precision in the school’s production of Othello and roles The Basic Eight are given to play.
What is particularly successful about The Basic Eight is the unusual format; Flannery is editing her diary from her prison cell and she is annotating and dramatising both events that happened and others that never existed. The diary form is scattered with asides from psychiatrists and talk-show hosts, stage directions, vocabulary lists and sardonic, text-book ‘Study Questions’ for the reader that not only reiterate key points but also cleverly advance the plot.
Another particular triumph of the book is how Handler presents Flan and her heartbreak; she initially claims that she is filled with ‘world-weariness and cynicism’, yet when she realises how boys can act, it is described with such delicacy that the only conclusion we can draw is that Flan’s naïveté is crumbling before our eyes – ‘I hadn’t felt such disgust for a boy since the early days, when they’d tease girls on the playground, kicking us and throwing gravel and raising their voices in high screechy mockery. “They do that because they like you,” all the adults said, grinning like pumpkins. We believed them, back then. Back then we thought it was true, and we were drawn towards all that meanness because it meant we were special, let them kick us, let them like us. We liked them back. But now it was turning out that our first instincts were right. Boys weren’t mean because they liked you; it was because they were mean.’ Flannery’s other heartbreak – one which cannot be revealed here due to its pivotal function in the novel – is also similarly arresting, with Handler gently taking us by the hand and revealing what had been there the whole time.
Handler’s novel creates a world that is so believable, so tangible and so relatable, that the final twist revels in the perfect irony he has painstakingly crafted since the first page and we leave, feeling like that the joke is very much on us.