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A twist of lemon

Adverbs A Novel Daniel Handler Ecco: 288 pp., $23.95

April 02, 2006|Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind's reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

BECAUSE the publisher of Daniel Handler's new book is marketing it as a novel when it bears only the subtlest resemblances to conventional fiction, I'm guessing that "Adverbs" might be causing some confusion for prospective book reviewers. How to summarize the action in a novel that conspicuously lacks a plot? How to analyze characters who proudly broadcast their own insubstantiality, are sometimes interchangeable and disappear randomly from the narrative? What exactly is going on in this book?

In a rare fit of altruism -- book critics not being well-known, as a group, for much of the old Kumbaya -- I am providing a handy guide for those faced with the task of evaluating Handler's new novel.

Hint No. 1: Explain how it's not "Lemony Snicket."

Technically, it's his third novel written for adults. But don't even consider neglecting to mention the juggernaut of stupendously successful children's books that Handler produces under the Snicket pseudonym. "A Series of Unfortunate Events," that much-celebrated cycle of gothicomic novels about the three plucky Baudelaire orphans, is a true cultural phenomenon: American literature for children that can also be enjoyed by ex-children and whose level of excellence is equal to that of its popularity.

Kids and adults alike love these tales because they present sinister situations in a droll, orderly manner that offers both thrills and comfort. Delightful as they are, however, do not assume that the Snicket books will be remotely helpful in assessing Handler's novels for grown-ups. They have nothing to do with each other.

Hint No. 2: Offer a few comments about Handler's "adult" fiction.

Although the Baudelaire children operate in a recognizably moral universe, the characters in Handler's non-Snicket novels, "The Basic Eight" (1999) and "Watch Your Mouth" (2000), are guided by few, if any, ethical restrictions. "The Basic Eight" is a trippy high school satire in which absinthe overdoses and grisly murders get mixed up with the usual "Lord of the Flies"-meets-"Lolita" high jinks of your average well-heeled San Francisco 12th-graders.

Loosely structured to imitate an opera, "Watch Your Mouth" features a nice Jewish family in suburban Pittsburgh, its little problem with incest, a basement golem, a 12-step program and more grisly murders. Both novels are gimmicky and hectic, and both run out of steam about halfway through their narratives. Again, these books have little in common with Handler's latest novel, except for their obvious stylistic debts to literary forebears (particularly Nabokov), a fact that will matter when you are ready, finally, to start discussing "Adverbs."

Hint No. 3: Start discussing "Adverbs."

In his new book, Handler confronts us with 16 episodes, each headlined by a different adverb -- "Immediately," "Obviously," "Arguably" -- and each set in or near a large urban center, usually New York City, San Francisco or Seattle. Within those locales are some archetypal milieus that brim with symbolism: a depressing diner, a spooky forest, a movie theater of broken dreams, a carefree park. The people who inhabit them are also archetypal, to say the least. Handler has taken great care to strip his characters of their specificity or to mock what is particular about them. ("She smoked cigarettes. I worked in a store that sold things.") There are several Joes, a couple of Andreas, a few Gladyses and Eddies; sometimes the multiples are the same person, other times not. "You can't follow all the Joes, or all the Davids or Andreas," Handler informs us in "Truly," "and anyway they don't matter."

What does matter, in Handler's view, "is not the diamonds or the birds, the people or the potatoes; it is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done." Handler is championing craft over content; he sees the latter as mostly just the same old story, and he's daring to sacrifice nearly every novelistic convention to advance his argument.

That doesn't mean nothing happens, though. The job of an adverb, after all, is to modify some action, of which there is plenty. In "Briefly," a 14-year-old boy lusts after his older sister's boyfriend. A postman finds himself inexplicably in love with an average Joe on his mail route in "Collectively." "Wrongly" spells trouble for Allison, a graduate student, when she hitches a ride with a menacing stranger. In several nonconsecutive episodes, a British novelist named Helena suspects her American husband of infidelity, frets about money and yearns to have a baby.

These stories all share a common theme, which is love in its infinite variety, but unlike the chapters in a conventional novel, they don't work together in any systematic way. There is no steady character development, no logical sequence of events, no buildup toward any kind of conventional climax.

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