I wanted, passionately and desperately, to fall in love with Daniel Handler’s Adverbs. Billed as a novel, but feeling more like a collection of linked short stories, the book confounded me with its look at the complexities of love in a time of terror alerts and other impending dooms. Handler creates a world of confusion and crisis, a stretched Silly Putty imprint of our own world, populated with lonely souls simply looking for someone upon whom they can hang their hats.
Exploring this premise, Handler visits moments when things change within a relationship. Few of the circumstances are ordinary, but the feeling of before and after is successfully universal. Best of all, the book exhibits the playfulness with language that caused many readers, young and old, to fall in love with the Lemony Snicket series. Passages like this left me slightly breathless, holding on tightly to Handler’s words:
“Sick?” I would hear myself yelling at the late-night science television. It was the only thing worth watching after visiting hours were done. “Why haven’t we fixed sick yet? You scientists there – put down those starfish and help us. I hereby demand that all people who are good at math make the world free of illness. The rest of us will write you epic poems and staple them together into a booklet.” Then I’d weep, finally, and fall asleep in Adam’s sweatshirt, and wake up and quit my job.
There is so much packed into that paragraph. I love the starfish and the pain, the writing and stapling of poetry, waking up and quitting a job. Something about this paragraph — and this is a representative paragraph — feels like marrow-born truth. There are many of these moments in Adverbs and they are the pieces that force you to keep reading, with your breath catching. It’s moments like these where I wanted to fall in love, completely, with Adverbs.
Here’s the problem: I’m not sure I get it. Handler points out the problem himself:
You can’t follow all the Joes, or the Davids or the Andreas. You can’t follow Adam or Allison or Keith, up to Seattle or down to San Francisco or across — three thousand miles, as the bird flies — to New York City, and anyway they don’t matter.
So, I wonder, does that mean that I am not supposed to get it? Is this a test? Is this post-modernism at work? The characters change names and genders. They share names. They cross paths, or maybe they don’t, maybe its just different characters with the same names. What does this mean? I wish I were smart enough to know. Instead, it just confused me. I kept asking myself, “Is that Joe from before, or some other Joe? Does it mean something that all these men are named Joe? Or is it just some ironic comment on the commonality of names? I mean, I know tons of Michelles; why shouldn’t someone write a story that reflects those kinds of realities…”
There’s nothing quite like a run-on thought like that to take you out of the moment of the book. Eventually, I gave up trying to understand the story of it all. Instead, I treated it like a series of prose poems, or maybe fortune cookies. I delighted in Handler’s way with words and I thrilled at the truths, small and large, that appeared amidst the confusion. When I stopped looking for the story, I couldn’t be disappointed when I didn’t find it and I could enjoy all the things that I did find.
And maybe that, in fact, is the point. In love, sometimes the story doesn’t matter. It’s how we love, the adverbs more than the action, that defines our relationships, no matter who is involved or how things turn out or where they happen.