Saturday, March 24, 2007

BOOK: "Adverbs," by Daniel Handler

On the book jacket, Dave Eggers calls Daniel Handler "an American Nabokov," Michael Chabon calls him a "literary conjurer," and Daniel Handler calls himself "an internationally acclaimed storyteller at the height of his astonishing power." At least Mr. Handler is joking around: the sad truth is that Adverbs, his new collection of short stories (which goes under the guise of a novel because some of the characters are perhaps similar, or perhaps just share names, or ostensibly are united under the grand theme of love), is more postmodern than classic, and the one magic trick used is used so frequently that we figure out the illusion within the first four adverb titled chapters. If that's not enough, the story "Truly," which walks the same line as the David Foster Wallace short "Octet" in that it enforces the clever authorial voice as he explains (as himself, sans character), exactly what he's doing: "In an earlier draft, instead of this essay, all of the characters in Adverbs--even the Chinese woman--gathered together for a party and decided to play a game," or "Some say that it's God who performs such miracles, but not in this book. (God appears only once, as the older sister in 'Briefly,' drinking snitched rum in the good glasses and flirting with the boy someone else wants.)"

Daniel Handler is a quirky writer, as evidenced by his bestselling (unfortunate) series under the pen name Lemony Snicket. He's got a penchant for dialog, and he's bold and brazen about it too: "'It's a common story,' Allison says, hoping she is still as soft-spoken as she thinks of herself. 'My husband ejaculated inside my vagina.'" But he's also gone without much of a plot, relying instead on the overarching and repetitious themes, along with the gimmicky recycling of irrelevant facts, such as a description of magpies as "attractive, aggressive, and artful," the recording of a L Street song with the verse "Yes yes yes, oh baby, yes," and a lot of pattering nonsense phrases that make up our apparently vacuous thoughts: for example, "money money money money money blah blah blah money."

The value of Adverbs is that it happens to be very funny. The downside is that it's a postmodern comedy, so it isn't just light, it's unbearably light, and the dialog is so contentiously normal that it starts to seem anything but. The characters were already blurring into each other, what with their shared memories and experiences, and their often identical names. But they sound the same too. Whether one particular story is in third person or first person, it's all Handler's clever voice, and while it works early on in the novel, it runs thin. The story "Obviously" tells the story of an unspoken teenage crush, and the way in which we use movies to perceive the world in a new, more Kickass light; it even uses an essay that Joe, the narrator, has recently written on chivalry and Gawain, as a counterbalance to all the snarky romanticism of today. But a similar story, "Symbolically," which is cast in a more adult light, doesn't have the same reach as the earlier stories, nor does it have the sweet brevity of "Briefly," a rush of a story that resembles a mash-up of the aforementioned David Foster Wallace and the brilliant postmodern satirist George Saunders.

What Adverbs is missing is depth; after reading seventeen similarly themed shorts, I feel as if I've just been splashing around in the kiddie pool, and if there's something to be taken away from this book, I must've missed it in the absurd situation comedy of "Collectively," where everybody in a neighborhood keeps barging in on a man with whom they are infatuated with, or the awkward romance of "Immediately," in which a man breaks up with his girlfriend and then falls obsessively in love with the cab driver who saves him. If it weren't for the constant appeal of Handler's first sentences, I wouldn't have been cajoled into reading as much as I did; I blame also the closing sentences, which are just cryptic enough to make you feel as if you've learned something: "Grant me this, this brief murdered moment, and then I will bury it sadly and go on with my game."

Maybe this novel is what love is like, tender yet tenacious, clever yet confusing, rapturous yet repugnant . . . but such a passive series of assumptions is Handler's game, not mine. If adverbs are really, as Handler claims, where things happen, then he's chosen the wrong ones. Frivolously is an adverb too, and much as I admire the epigraph about the Marx Brothers, this is too much thrown-together slapstick.

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