Daniel Handler's latest novel is a series of interlocking short stories, each about love. As one character explains, "Love is a story, usually a love story." And this love story, in its convoluted and episodic way, is by turns wistful, funny, plaintive, and frustrating. Adverbs is about falling, not being, in love. Each chapter, named for an adverb, concerns that plunge—men falling in love with women, women with men, men with men, etc.
The 17 chapters—"Immediately," "Frigidly," "Barely"—also demonstrate Handler's own love of the English language. Throughout Adverbs, he plays with prose, tense, and near puns, just as he plays with the conventions of literary love, stereotypical love stories, and storied lovers. Many sentences have a lovely symmetry ("before I fell, if fallen is what I am feeling, if fallen is what I am"). The effect can be mannered and precious at times, yet also very moving.
As in his Lemony Snicket children's books, Handler is a rather baroque writer. Between all the pop songs, mixed drinks, ripped purses, birds, coastal cities, and looming natural disasters, it can be hard to suss out his intent in Adverbs. To an extent, he solves this problem, as in the Snicket series, by using an all-powerful narrator to sum things up: "[T]here's no sense in keeping track of what everyone is doing. You might as well trace birds through a book, or follow a total stranger you spot outside the window of your cab. . . .The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done. It is the way love gets done despite every catastrophe. . . . Surely somebody will arrive, in a taxi perhaps, attractively, artfully, aggressively, or any other way it is done."
Handler's seemingly interchangeable characters and plots—all of them subordinate to his language—leave us feeling unmoored and off balance, yet they also force us to reconsider any notion we might have about seamless love stories with unique inhabitants. Everybody in these stories calls attention to their own fictiveness, which can be more frustrating than fulfilling. Yet there are moments of plaintiveness we can recognize from our own, real-life stories.