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Book Review: Adverbs by Daniel Handler

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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.

About Bonnie

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    Both those quoted paragraphs demonstrate poor writing skills, IMHO, and not too many adverbs – why the title?

  • http://lit.fictionary.ca Bonnie

    Aaman, I didn’t find a reason in the text for the title, although there is an explanation of it in an interview on the publisher’s website:

    “I was reminded of a parlor game called Adverbs, in which actions are improvised according to an adverb someone is supposed to guess. I suddenly realized that this strategy would be an intriguing one to try for a novel, and that the titles I’d been using as placeholders could make for a sort of roadmap through the novel.”

  • http://desicritics.org Aaman

    So he went quickly, slowly, hardly.

    Thanks:)

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Eric

    Aaman — In what sense do you mean “poor writing skills”? Handler’s prose might not jive with Strunk & White, but it’s a deliberate and effective stylistic decision. I know you haven’t read the book, but the story “Soundly,” from which that first passage was taken, is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read in some time. Whatever his weaknesses, Handler is by no means a weak writer.

    As for the title, the simplest explanation is that the title of each chapter/story is an adverb having to do with the love described within. There’s a great deal more to it than that, however.

    Bonnie — Handler solves the “problem” a few sentences after that second passage you quoted, and in the title itself. As he says, it doesn’t particularly matter if the Joes are the same. If the stories were read without reference to the rest of the book, the parade of Joes would be a non-issue. Handler suggests in “Barely” that all love stories are self-contained, taken one at a time, and must be read with emphasis not on the who, where, or when, but “the way things are done.” It’s the jacket quote: “It is not the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs.”

  • http://blogcritics.org/author.php?author=Bonnie Bonnie

    Eric, thanks for the comments. I have to say, I have really mixed feelings about the book. I do like Handler’s writing, in all its rule-breaking glory. And I get that the shifting names are to an extent a comment on the fact that the experience is universal and faceless and circumstantial. The problem is, I’m not sure that it worked as a whole for me. The fault may be mine — maybe I’m too traditional — but I got frustrated because I couldn’t let go of the urge to try and make sense of the larger story. At the same time, I can see what there is to like about the book as it is, rather than as I kept trying to make it be.