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Thursday, June 07, 2007
by Daniel Handler
This book is tricky because there were sections I adored beyond reason (I laughed, I cried, I did not rip it up and feed it to the garbage disposal or set it on fire) and there were parts that I despised and wished there was some simple memory-erasing brain-scraping procedure that didn't involve my imagined and considered DIY solution of a cocktail fork up the nose. So. I'm kind of conflicted. And what makes this even MORE maddening is that the author has a built in defense/excuse against these kinds of conflicting attitudes. His book jacket (which is, btw, hilarious) says "It might sound confusing, but that's love." So, because his book is about LOVE and not something with a single correct answer (like Pi to seven digits or the best singer for the Monkees) he has an automatic criticism deflector. Unfair, but fiendishly clever -- which actually describes many of my problems with the book as a whole. I read this several months ago, and just saw Handler and Colin Meloy "in conversation" at Powell's in Beaverton a couple of weeks ago.

This novel has a rather unconventional format. It's set up in chapters (CHAPTERS! My god! what next, scratch & sniff?) with adverbs as titles: immediately, obviously, soundly, briefly, wrongly, collectively, often, frigidly, and so on. Certain of these chapters read a lot like short stories and there are a dozen or so characters who fall in and out of love with each other, although maybe they're not the SAME characters, maybe they're just people with the same name. It's not always clear, but believe it or not I had no problem with this. (I was surprised in the "conversation" that the things Mr. Meloy wanted answers for were exactly the kind of literary ambiguities I was fine with. Whether or not Joe at the beginning was the same Joe at the end didn't bother me a bit, although there were certainly other things that did.) Alongside the ever-changing but probably the same cast of characters, there is also the underlying theme of Catastrophe, (in this novel it is a volcano in San Francisco. As Handler points out in his self-written dust jacket: "In my opinion a volcano automatically makes a story more interesting."). Time shifts a lot in this book -- there are sections pre-catastrophe, post-catastrope and catastrophe-adjascent. I thought this worked pretty well, not just for the disaster/love metaphor, but because it also poked at the bruise of our national Terrorism Disaster Dread. He had a great quote at the reading about the peculiar kind of arrogance/ fearlessness/ terror that "feels like romance to me!"

During the reading Handler gave some background on how he came to write this novel; basically it's cribbed from the love lives of his single friends. He himself has been happily married for a long time and they were together for a long time before that. Most of these tales of Love Gone Wrong (and mostly it does although sometimes it doesn't) are borrowed and embellished. He did point out that he had to change a lot because The Truth was sometimes just too farfetched to be believed.

I think I was put off a little by that remove; with few exceptions he keeps that distance up, even having an all-knowing (Snicket-style) narrator pop up and drop some Love Profundity on us poor unsuspecting readers from time to time. There were a few stories (I'm thinking particularly of Frigidly) that worked on an almost fairy tale level and there this distance seemed fitting. Frigidly was actually one of my favorites despite having lots of Narrator Love Profundity -- I recommend reading it in a bookstore if you don't buy the whole book. It's short and features a character called the Snow Queen who played Dracula's Daughter in old monster movies, who may or may not actually be the Snow Queen. She drinks a lot of jazz-age cocktails and is very wise if prone to dramatic pronouncements which, when you think about it is completely in character for someone who used to play Dracula's Daughter and is drinking Gene Ahern Gloom Chasers. Here's a quote that doesn't really tell you much about the story, but gives some Snow Queen background (looking in an album): "That was me," the Snow Queen said. "Dracula's daughter. A girl who comes across a terrible secret at her uncle's castle. Look, in this one a ghost falls in love with me and we go to a restaurant. It's a comedy. Here I'm going mad when they're reading the hypnotist's last will and testament, and in the corner a terrible creature is taking me away."

Someone asked Handler at the reading (probably Colin Meloy) did he feel like he used the same voice for his Lemony Snicket novels as he does for his "adult" novels? He said he thought he did, although obviously he went into more detail in the adult novels. (this was when he revealed that he had been sent erotic Baudelaire fanfiction.) I was so refreshed by the honesty of this reply! I think that's one of the things that makes his Snicket novels so popular -- he's writing the way he would normally write, just leaving out the stuff that's not appropriate for kids. Anyway, I like that he does not seem to qualify those books as lesser, which is something I've seen with novelists who write for both kids and adults.

He talked about the process of writing the novel. It was originally SO MUCH longer, by like 1000 pages and he just had to keep hacking away at it. He (and a friend, I can't remember now and my notes don't say) came up with an idea for new legislation on novels: You need a permit for anything over 300 pages, like a gun permit. Anyone who applied would probably get one, unless your last really long novel tanked. He discussed the difficulty of writing short stories/novel about love and how he was afraid it was always on the brink of being a self-help book with fictional examples. (paraphrase) "This is bad because the best case scenario is heartbreak (the romance ends) & death (even if the romance doesn't end on its own, somebody dies first)."

Truthfully, I wish I loved this book. Handler is so charming, amusing and delightfully bent I could listen to him tell stories and cook up schemes all day long. I thought the good parts were very good, but the bad parts were like fingernails on a chalkboard. The thing is, of course, a topic as simultaneously universal and individual as love is going to invite a lot of conflicting opinions. My most hated chapter could be a revelation for someone else. Chacun a son goût, I suppose. Maybe you should read it yourself and see.
6 comments on "Adverbs"
  1. I would definitely (adverb warning) check out Handler's book, based on your review, Jen. But I kept thinking Give!--after reading it 3X through. I want to hear what you despised, what inspired the urge (even if not carried through) to rip it up and feed it to the garbage disposal, or set it on fire. What was so rank as to make you wish there were some memory-erasing brain-scraping procedure that didn't involve a cocktail fork up your nose? (Hey, just what I could have used for the Paris Hilton circus!) What ? bad parts were like fingernails on a blackboard? Seems like the distant Love Profundity narrator could hardly bring on such strong reactions.

    As a reader, I can assure you I would not be turned off by negatives on the scale suggested by your review. Volcanic!

  2. oh, dude! I'm not going to tell you! It's so unlikely it would be the same for any two people AND it feels like spelling it all out tells you more about ME than it does about the book. So I didn't. Plus, it has been MONTHS since I read it and I just remember that I had a really strong negative reaction in a couple of parts, but didn't go back to investigate because who needs that twice? Although I suspect that what bugs or delights is subject to change depending on mood and situation.

    I think my biggest stylistic problem with the book was that some of the chapters were a little arch and all-knowing and that tone grated on me. But there were other places where it wasn't and it didn't.

    I just got back from the parade and am soaking wet! not that that has to do with anything, really, just that if none of my reply makes any sense we can chalk it up to hypothermia or something, okay?

  3. Guess I will just have to check out that book myself and see if I have any urges to destroy it in some new and creative way. (Which I won't carry through, it being a library book and all.)

  4. you'll have to let me know what you think.

    (although I am compelled to point out that I said I did NOT have the urge to do any of those violent things that seem to have captured your imagination... so I hope you're not disappointed if you're not driven to wild and violent acts from reading.)

  5. ... although I must admit I did say I wanted to put a cocktail fork up my nose.

    ... but I clearly (ha ha) stated that I did NOT want to set it on fire or put it through the garbage disposal.

    I can't believe I'm writing the equivalent of: p.s. fork up my nose YES, flaming book in the garbage disposal NO.

  6. Gosh, I am now so far behind on reading your posts! (This thing of being sick is cutting into the great pleasures of my life!) Anyway, it seems like both of us have moved on. I will just have to read Handler for myself. Will let you know if I have any destructive or self-destructive urges while doing so.


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