06 March, 2008

'Adverbs' - Daniel Handler

It has been some time between book reviews. I would struggle to draw parallels between the last book I reviewed, a novel of teen angst, and this one, Daniel Handler's intriguing, innovative and inscrutable collection of stories, Adverbs.

The book is a collection of explorations on the topic of love. In each story, a way of loving is examined - to love 'immediately', 'particularly' or 'wrongly' - and hence the book's title. The stories are loosely linked, with characters from earlier stories appearing strongly or tangentially in later ones. There is an overarching narrative voice: that of the author. One of the later stories is entitled 'Truly' and in this piece the writer speaks to the reader directly, giving details about writing the book and his personal experiences. Keeping track of each of the characters had been proving a challenge and suddenly, so far in, the author informs us that there are multiple Steves throughout the book, multiple Andreas. Just because two characters have the same name, doesn't mean they are the same character. What the reader should be looking for, he asserts, are the birds.

The stories are all founded on this level of irony. Can one love ironically? I think not, but one can undoubtedly discuss it ironically. Literature is, in fact, full of couples who are in love but spend most of their dialogue saying one thing when the audience knows they mean another. Handler, on the other hand, is masterful at saying exactly what he means in ways that I would postulate no one has thought of before. Why note someone as simply good-looking when they could be 'as handsome as a new truck'?

I am on record as being sceptical of books that come overly recommended. This one does not have international bestseller splashed all over the front, which, frankly, is not a surprise, since it is very far from the poorly thought out, overly accessible narratives that normally top the lists. What it does have are commendations from Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers. It could be a dissertation on the modern relevance of Handler's alter-ego, Lemony Snicket, and Jim Carrey's handling of one of her characters and I'd still crave to read it.


  1. what's wrong with knitting seminars?

  2. I knew someone would pick up on that! I mean no disrespect to knitting seminars and in fact have no answer to your question. More of them I say, then we can make our own cardies rather than having no choice but to buy imported, unsustainably sourced ones.

    I must challenge my brain to instead come up with something witty, appropriate, entirely non-offensive and unquestionable, about which I have no desire to read!

    Did you know that Daniel Handler is Lemony Snicket?

  3. this book sounds great especially considering short stories are my current inamorata. i was glad to come across your review of the sportswriter too, because i was just thinking about an episode of the book show where ramona koval interviewed richard ford, and i couldn't for my life remember the name of the book or the author...thank you! to think i came across this blog while looking up the address for espressino...

  4. Estelle - it was great to read your comment!

    I enjoyed the notion in 'Adverbs' that one could either take the stories as individual short pieces or look for the links. It was Hellerian (doesn't quite roll off the tongue like Dickensian! Perhapes Helleresque?) of Handler not to point that choice out until so late in the book, however!

    I'm glad I was able to help with Richard Ford. I'll have to start tuning into the Book Show on my days off.

    Leave a comment to let me know what you think of Espressino too!

  5. I quite like 'Helleresque'. I am really interested in reading this book now - I read 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell which has a similar intertextual structure but this aim was extremely explicit, and I wish it had been a little less explicit. For me it seemed like he didn't trust his readers enough. Handler will have to wait until I am through my half-read pile, though.

    PS. Espressino was lovely - I didn't go on a pasta day so that pleasure still awaits. but the (owner?) is so lovely, I couldn't believe the extent of my swooning. a bit embarrassing.

  6. I know what you mean, about authors sometimes using a technique that is more patronising than effective.

    Glad you liked Espressino, and yes, there is definitely a swoon-worthy element to the stafffing!