Friday, March 30, 2007

8. Adverbs

by Daniel Handler

If you’re a fan of the Lemony Snicket series and think that anything Daniel Handler, Snicket’s alter ego, would write would be similarly weird (writing a children’s series all about death and dismay is, you know, kind of weird), well…you’d be right. I haven’t really decided whether or not I liked Adverbs. I haven’t read anything other than the Series of Unfortunate Events, but have always wanted to read something by Handler, so when I saw the bright shiny Daniel Clowes designed dust jacket in Unabridged’s window I snatched it up. But I don’t know if I liked it.

Adverbs is kind of a collection of short stories that are all somewhat connected to each other, but it’s not a novel. Not really, because while you recognize some of the names from previous stories, it’s never revealed how these people know each other or even if these are the same people and not just people with the same names. We start out with a man leaving his girlfriend, named Andrea, by lying to her about his father’s death. We meet another Andrea in Helena’s story, in which she uses up of all her money and her husband David convinces her to take a job under his ex-girlfriend, named Andrea, at a school in San Francisco. As a teenager Lila works at a movie theater and dates the unscrupulous Keith while her quiet and chivalry-obsessed coworker pines for her. Another Lila – or perhaps the same one a few years older – sits in a bar with her friend Allison, unable to drink or eat as the result of a rare stomach disorder, with her only hope lying in the possibility of an organ transplant. It’s here that they meet a woman named Gladys who seems to have the ability to make anything they ask for happen. We later catch up with an Andrea at a diner who’s questioned by the police in their search for the “Snow Queen,” also known as Gladys.

You get the idea. It was definitely interesting coming across these familiar names and trying to figure out how they were connected, but there’s no resolution for that. We never know if these people are the same we’ve encountered before, or if the author is just reusing names. And we don’t know if the similarities have any meaning either, as they’re presented without any hint of forethought or determination. It’s almost as if the author thought, “Hey…I can use the same names and won’t that confuse people?” I have a difficult time remembering what I’ve read, sometimes even when I’m reading it, so for me it was like, “Did we talk about this person before? What did they do? Does that have any bearing on what’s happening now? Hold on…let me flip back twenty pages and try to find it again.” It was actually a little jarring.

Maybe that’s what Handler intended. Maybe the peripheral character recurrences are meant to mimic how these things happen in life. You’re standing there, the same character you’ve always been, and out on the street you see someone who could be that girl you met at a party and shared a cab with or that guy you almost dated years ago. Someone who never really had a place in your life, but seeing them again jars you just a bit. Maybe that’s what Daniel Handler meant when he wrote his story this way. After all, Adverbs, and adverbs, is/are not about what is done, but how it’s done. But somehow I suspect that’s just me trying to impart some reason on a scattered narrative that works less well than I’d like it to.

I did like the stories, but I didn’t love them like I expected to. Although judging by the Series of Unfortunate Events finale, I shouldn’t be so surprised. It seems that while Handler has a gift for creating a compelling story, he lags a bit when it comes to pulling it all together. I really would have liked to know what happened to some of the characters after the snippet we’re given, if they met unfortunate ends, made marriages work, or lived to overcome their odds. Instead, there are no answers. While that may also mimic the ambiguity of real life, that’s not what I want from my fiction.

Oh, and there may have been some sort of volcanic disaster in the middle of California. Not that we’re told what the deal with that is, either.


Blogger piksea said...

Yikes! That sounds awfully confusing. I'm not sure if that's a sign that I should leave this one go, or if I will need to read it just to see if I could possibly work out what the heck was happening. I'm slowly reading through the Lemony Snicket books. They make a good diversion from some of the larger, deeper books that I read.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Heliologue said...

Attracted though I am by a book named after a part of speech (seriously), I've never really cared at all for the Lemony Snicket books, so that, combined with your own ambivalent review, is perhaps a ringing anti-endorsement for this one.

12:57 AM  
Anonymous Trudie said...

Hi. I'm just a random reader that came across your project via Gapersblock, but I wanted to say that I miss your reading your reviews. Oh well, hope school is going well for you.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read "The Basic Eight" by Handler instead.

9:25 PM  

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