Daniel Handler, the man behind the popular Lemony Snicket books, is best known for this beloved, delightfully melancholy children’s series, but nowhere does he showcase his artful prose and knack for capturing the essence of human relationships better than in his underappreciated fragmentary novel for adults, ADVERBS.
InADVERBS (called a novel, but more like a collection of interconnected short stories), the focus is not at all on the handful of characters, who have generic names and appear in different permutations throughout the book. Instead, each chapter is titled with an adverb that describes how the characters within that chapter are in love: briefly, clearly, not particularly. So while the Allison on the cruise ship may not be the same as the Allison in the library or the one in the bar, for example, it doesn’t matter: all you need to know is whether she is in love wrongly or soundly.
At the start of the book, we’re Immediately (and yes, that’s the chapter title) dropped into the midst of a failing relationship between Andrea and Joe—or maybe it’s David; we can’t really be sure. They are on their way to the reading of a will and break up outside of the taxi—which is fortunate because upon entering the taxi, Joe instantly falls in love with the cab driver, Peter. Fueled by love, Joe manages to weasel his way into a coffee shop with Peter, where Peter takes his coffee black and Joe “[makes] a note of the coffees [they’ll] drink in the future.” Joe’s immediate and passionate obsession with Peter, while bordering on the absurd, rings true in its nearness to our own tumbling into love, requited or not. And when Joe is left standing on the curb, “waving, semaphoring, signaling” to the runaway taxi, we get a sense of where we’re all headed.
Although we do not revisit Joe (or at least perhaps not that particular Joe) anytime soon, true to the alleged “novel” form, each chapter builds upon the others thematically and draws you further into Handler’s unusual world. The deeper you go, the more it feels as if you’ve been slowly let in on an inside joke with the author. You begin to spot patterns of phrases and imagery throughout the chapters: about magpies, money, mothers. You’ll discover repeating references to songs and places and begin to see parallels between relationships, even though the characters themselves remain vague sketches and may or may not be the same as the characters mentioned earlier in the book. And while learning to disregard the characters—the nouns—may require a leap of faith on the reader’s part, the payoff of focusing on the adverbs is worth it.
Because in prioritizing the adverbs and pushing the characters into the background, Handler does something incredibly special: he makes the feelings and experiences universal to his readership, even if you’ve never personally had a fling while videotaping a volcano, felt stirrings for the Snow Queen, or had a rebound relationship with a ghost. If you’ve ever felt you’ve been in love naturally, truly, often, or even collectively, thenADVERBS knows what you’ve been through and shares with you in experiencing—in Handler’s words—the beauty of “the way things are done.”