03 November 2016

Review: Adverbs by Daniel Handler

Trade paperback, 272 pages
Published 2007 (originally 2006)

Acquired October 2008
Read December 2014
Adverbs by Daniel Handler

When I teach genre classes, I like to conclude with an "edge case" for the genre, one that pushes my students to make a claim as to whether or not the book fits the genre, which in doing so forces to them to articulate what the genre is. When I taught The Modern Novel, I ended with Daniel Handler's Adverbs, which you might define as a collection of linked short stories, yet the cover of my HarperPerennial edition, at least, claims the subtitle A NOVEL. Though the book is not unified in terms of plot, a number of characters recur (or seem to recur) between stories, and there are recurrent motifs, like pop songs and birds, that bring unity to the book, beyond the fact that the whole book is a meditation on one topic, that of love.

Handler does tie much of the book together in the chapter "Truly," which is more of an essay about the rest of the book (it reminds me of the half chapter in Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, a novel similarly on the edge of novel-ness). In "Truly," Handler suggests both that the book is unified and that you're a bit foolish for chasing the unification:
Nobody keeps score, because there's no sense in keeping track of what everything is doing. You might as well trace birds through a book, [...] or follow the pop songs that stick in people's heads or follow the people themselves, although you're likely to confuse them, as so many people in this book have the same names. You can't follow all the Joes, or all the Davids or Andreas. You can't follow Adam or Allison or Keith, up to Seattle or down to San Francisco or across-- three thousand miles, as the bird flies-- to New York City, and anyway they don't matter. (193-4)
I would argue, then, that the book is unified by its very lack of unity: the reader of Adverbs seeks coherence in an incoherent universe, much as all the characters in the book do. And creating coherence in an incoherent universe, or at least raising the spectre of coherence and then destroying it, is precisely what the novel is all about. (My students liked the book, and did indeed say it was a novel, but I think maybe they just wanted the discussion to end so that class would be over.)

No comments:

Post a Comment