Adverbs by Daniel Handler

27/01/06, The Times

Cleverly linked series of short stories, the episodic novel, call it what you will, is fast moving from de rigueur literary fashion item to a badly ageing embarrassment that needs to be hidden away. Custom has staled its infinite variety. Daniel Handler advances it closer to the scrapyard with his third adult novel, Adverbs. Handler is, of course, none other than Lemony Snicket, the author of those deliciously wicked and wonderful children’s novels, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and he hasn’t quite left this persona behind in Adverbs: elements of magic, fairy-tale, communing with the dead, all intervene periodically in the book, a nicely self-conscious reference to his writing alter ego. But these ludic touches do not quite transmit themselves into the bigger game of having readers work out how the stories join for they don’t. Or they might not. The irony in Handler’s own blurb for the dustjacket, a self-reflexive piece of mild satire on the craft of blurb-writing that deliberately sets out to confuse with the recurrence of its characters, or the recurrence of names of characters who might not be the same people across the several stories, fades quickly into a more damning truth. The soufflé of novel didn’t quite rise, so he decided to serve it up anyway, as a fashionable, cheesy mess.
The seventeen chapters, or stories, are all named after adverbs – ‘Immediately’, ‘Obviously’, ‘Arguably’, ‘Particularly’, and so on. The titles are very tenuously, if at all, linked to the subject matter of the stories, but as one of the narrator remarks in ‘Naturally’, ‘It is not the things, it is the way things are done’. Ah, the how, rather than the what. Good thing he oversignals this equation frantically, because the ‘what’ is so emaciated that at times it is non-existent. And this ‘what’ is nothing less than Love itself, love purporting to be in all its dizzying varieties: romantic, sexual, straight, gay, between friends, between the living and the dead, reciprocated, dying, unrequited, fickle, transferred. For a book that keeps telling us, from the blurb, through the dedication, to every single irritatingly garrulous page, that it is about the whole spectrum of love, especially its chiselled grey anguish, it is surprising how very little it has to say about this all-consuming emotion in human life. And that little has as much depth as an infant’s bath water, not to mention its tepidity. But to judge it on its overstated principle of the supremacy of the how over the what, the book loses out even more.
There is nothing new, original or revelatory about the way these lives and loves criss-cross. In ‘Soundly’, Allison will do anything for her friend, Lila, who suffers from a rare disease, but they are both stuck across Puget Sound in traffic, all ferries cancelled, unable to get to Seattle where a life-saving operation for Lila has to be availed of immediately. Allison used to be married to Adam, who killed himself, and she has never quite got over him. Is this the same Adam who is about to have sex with Eddie in a forest clearing when they are interrupted by Tomas, seeking help for his injured hiking partner, Steven? Is this Tomas the same one who sits at the tollbooth at Puget Sound telling despairing passengers that all ferries to Seattle have been cancelled? The same Adam who has sex with alcoholic young writer, Mike (or is it Tomas?), before turning up with Eddie in the same story and the one after that? Yes, no, maybe, maybe not. Who cares?
No amount of hyperventilating narratorial intrusion, telling us in faux naïf tones what love is, what it isn’t, how it happens, how it fades, can keep out the triteness of these shallow stories. The occasional tattooing of the text with pop lyrics and a damagingly busy overkill with words in failed searches for mots justes manage to highlight the fact that Handler so clearly wants to keep hidden — that this dishonest foisting of fancy claptraps about hows and adverbs is an unconvincing disguise for the poverty of the what, especially when the how that brings it to readers is so thin. An unfortunate event.