‘Adverbs’ by Daniel Handler

*This review will contain spoilers!*

Do you ever read a book that is just so confusing, so mind-boggling, that after you finish it you sit there for about fifteen minutes staring into space before you can even accept the fact that that was it? Well, ‘Adverbs’ was one of those books for me. 
‘Adverbs’ is not a novel, heedless of the fact that it’s marketed as one. ‘Adverbs’ is a collection of disjointed short stories that vaguely link through a muddle of character connections and a very twisted sense of chronology. Daniel Handler (also know as SPOILER ALERT! Lemony Snicket, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events) is a genius – his writing style is off the wall, often makes me laugh and is very enjoyable because of how unique it is… But ‘Adverbs’ takes it from kooky and quirky to completely pretentious, over-the-top and not very well thought out.
I know, I know, how can a book that connects this many characters in this many intricate ways be not well thought out? It would be okay if Daniel just owned the fact that that was what he was trying to do, acknowledging that these characters were all interlinked by coincidence or fate or some greater force at work – but that’s not what he does. In the chapter ‘truly’, which is written by Daniel Handler as Daniel Handler, in kind of a memoir/commentary upon ‘Adverbs’, he states: 

‘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.’ 

I’m pretty sure that your characters do matter, or at least they should in an immersive and emotional novel. It seems to me as though this is an easy way out, because if there are ever any plot holes or bad connections between the characters, Daniel can just point and say “aha! That’s because that Tomas isn’t the Tomas we met earlier, or the Tomas we will meet in a few chapters time”. The name Tomas isn’t that rare, but a Tomas who also knows a Steven, an Adam and an Eddie (who is a girl, by the way) must be one of the fewer specimens of Tomas’s in the world.
I had planned to draw out a little map of the characters and their connections at the bottom here, so that you could get an idea for yourself how twisty turny the world of ‘Adverbs’ really is, but that would waste too much of my life, and I feel as though I’ve already spent far too much time on this book that could have been spent elsewhere.
By the end of the novel, I was enjoying it more. A few things clicked into place and it did make a lot more sense. For example, in ‘clearly’ Tomas and Steven go hiking, and Steven gets injured. Eddie and Adam are nearby in the forest, so Tomas asks them for help, but when they return there are three backpacks on the ground. Later on, in ‘barely’, we meet Andrea, who is dating Steven, and Andrea’s friend Sam exclaims “He’ll slay you. […] You’ll go on some hike with his college buddy and they’ll just do it. You’ll vanish.”. As we never see Eddie or Adam, or indeed Andrea, again, we can assume that Sam was spot on and that forest became a crime scene for three of our characters, but at the time it’s left as a big cliffhanger and it takes that long to work it out that the gratification is greatly minimised.
However, in ‘symbolically’, the chapter before ‘clearly’, Adam sleeps with Tomas, and Tomas is introduced to Eddie. It seems quite certain that it must be the same Tomas, which is what makes me question the events in ‘clearly’ – surely one, or both, of the couple should have recognised him and should have decided not to follow him aimlessly through the woods. This is where Daniel Handler’s defense of “but it wasn’t the same Tomas!” would come in handy, but that just seems like a very cheap excuse.
Apparently, ‘Adverbs’ is a story about love. While love (or infatuation, or the absence of love) crops up quite regularly, occurring more often is the motif of birds and volcanoes. Apparently there is some age-old belief that San Francisco is on top of an active volcano, which is referenced multiple times throughout, so when the volcano eventually erupts it’s not that much of a surprise. I’m still quite confused on the bird motif, because while the lovebirds symbolise the love and the need for partnership, and the magpies symbolise the greed and the need of the characters who are desperate for money and other shiny things, the majority of the mentions are just thrown away and don’t really link into the story in the slightest. I understand that that’s part of Daniel Handler’s appeal – that he fixates on an idea and gets stuck on it – but it just didn’t work as well for me in this novel.
In all honesty, the majority of these characters are unnecessary. While the Eddie/Adam/Tomas/Steven thing is quite interesting, and does take a few chapters to set itself up and then work itself out, the only other characters who are really needed in this novel are Andrea and Joe. In the first chapter, ‘immediately’, Andrea’s boyfriend leaves her because he’s fallen madly in love with a taxi driver (neither of which are seen again) and in the second chapter, ‘obviously’, we are introduced to Joe, who is dreaming about Lila, the girl he had a crush on in college. The novel keeps going back to Andrea and Joe, so they’re almost the main characters of the entire affair, and when they get together in the final chapter, ‘judgmentally’, it feels almost cathartic – we’ve followed these characters through and something has actually happened to them, which is a surprise when you consider that many of the characters are just dropped in and are then never mentioned again.
Or rather, they’re mentioned all the time, but don’t have any remarkable plot line or contribution to the tale. Hank, Keith, David, Helena, Mike… None of them are necessary. The only ones of them who get any kind of resolution to their tales are David and Helena, who randomly acquire a large amount of money and find out they’re having a baby after doing nothing but argue in all of their scenes. Allison is kind of necessary in ‘soundly’, as she helps wrap up Lila’s story, but then she has a lot of removable chapters where she doesn’t do a lot, and when the revelation comes that she is Daniel Handler’s mother (say it with me now, what?!) it takes a massive step over to the dark side of the intriguing plot twists.
If you like things that are overly convoluted, don’t make much sense and are downright irritating, you’ll love this book. If you have the time to read it twice, you’ll also love this book – I can imagine it makes much more sense on the second read through, but I do not have enough time to commit to this again. I’d expected a lot more, and while it was interesting and some of the quotes were inspiring and thought-provoking (such as ‘this often leads to weddings unless you’re gay, although this too will change, for how could it now, and perhaps it has by the time this is published’ which, when you consider the fact that the book was published in 2006, is an interesting piece of social commentary and shows how optimistic Daniel Handler was) there wasn’t really a whole lot going on. I feel unsatisfied and I definitely feel as though I’ve missed something – I just don’t understand it at all.