Adverbs, by Daniel Handler

A syrupy take on the many and varied manifestations of love
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The Independent Culture

Not quite a story collection, but too loose-knit to call a novel, Adverbs follows a group of young Americans as their romances boomerang them from New York to San Francisco. The characters' names shift as often as the locale, so it's almost impossible to keep track. The book's attitude is light as candy floss, but the aftertaste hints at something darker.

Although he has written two other novels for adults, Handler is better known as the creator of Lemony Snicket, fictional author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, which chronicle the lives of the Baudelaire children after their parents die. Adverbs is a neat flip-flop: it presents a children's author playing around in the world of adult fiction.

The ghoulish instincts at play in the Lemony books give Handler's cheery disquisitions on love a tense, surreal quality. "Love is candy from a stranger," he quips in "Collectively", "but it's candy you've had before and it probably won't kill you."

It's not clear if the author is mocking our faith in romance or serenading it. In "Truly", Handler steps from behind his authorial curtain to explain his adverbial enthusiasm for love. "The miracle is the adverbs," he writes. "It is the way love gets done despite every catastrophe."

So the real characters here are, in fact, the adverbs. The men and women are simply vehicles for more adverbial expression. Each chapter is titled by an adverb, which describes how characters fall in and out of love ("Immediately"), how they see after being betrayed ("Clearly") or how they get over heartbreaks ("Collectively"). To appreciate this linguistic stunt one must have a rarefied sensibility. But a courteous creator helps, too. Handler's puppyish enthusiasms can be so flighty, so regressive, that one wants to protect one's inner child from being smothered. In "Obviously", a character who works at a cinema looks forward to all "the emptied-out times when all the happy people were happy in the dark". There is a treacle note in such descriptions that presumes we would all return to our bouncy childhoods if we could.

But by putting these old chestnuts into play, Handler comments on how they degrade those who parrot them. "Isn't love a sharing?" he asks, his wink practically imperceptible. "Isn't it opening your bag of sweets and passing it around, or whipping something up out of groceries you brought to someone else's house?" No, in fact that's what in America we call potluck.