Once, in a writing workshop I attended, a young woman presented her short story to the class. She was an irrefutably clever writer, she had already been published in some of the liveliest, most irreverent journals, and one by one we nodded our heads and agreed that her story was tricky, clever, had a pleasing shape. The old professor mumbled unhappily, then said, “But is this it? Is this all you have in your heart?”
Enter Daniel Handler and his new not-quite-a-novel, Adverbs. [Because the damn thing, for all its frills and flounces, is insufferably slight in the heart department.] He’s a remarkable fellow, Mr. Handler. He played accordion on the Magnetic Field’s 69 Love Songs. He’s a member of LitPAC: a gang of superwriters (Dave Eggers, Jane Smiley, Tobias Wolff included) who have joined forces to find us better, smarter, kinder politicians. As Lemony Snicket, he wrote those wicked and wonderful Series of Unfortunate Events books that children adore. And his new book (for adults) is fresh, acrobatic, sly and chock-full of winsome oddities — a volcano under San Francisco, a drink called the Suffering Bastard, a Snow Queen and lots of unlikely love. It has jokes (“It is always dawnest before dusk”), chapters with titles like “Wrongly” and “Truly,” and off-kilter characters that bash around in taxicabs and on Comicbook Cruises, performing spontaneous acts of sex and chitchat. It is utterly clever, utterly charming, utterly, utterly. But is that all that he has in his heart?
Handler simply seems unwilling to commit acts of candor. He invents plenty of potentially devastating scenarios, but his affectation undermines. In a revelatory moment, he describes two longtime girlfriends: “They had developed a layer of sincerity over the irony over the sincerity. It was an irony sandwich, then, which tasted mostly like sincerity, like a cheap, bad sandwich.” Firstly, this is a funny sentence, a fun image. Secondly, what the hell? Does he believe that sincerity is distasteful? Because, if anything, Adverbs suffers from an excess of irony, a surplus of witty asides, too much ketchup and not enough burger.
The tussle between sincerity and irony isn’t completely one-sided. There are times when Handler tries to shed his I-don’t-care pajamas and rend our hearts. It’s an appreciated gesture, an insistence that beneath the swirling self-reflexivity and pomo fabulism there’s not just humor but humanity. Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, George Saunders, et al., have been nailing this laugh-and-tremble bull’s-eye for years. But with Handler it’s always a tad schlocky; he erroneously believes he can just turn the emotion on, that he is virtuosic enough to shift from pretty to profound in a melancholy half paragraph.
In “Soundly,” the chapter that strikes closest to true pathos, a woman awaiting an organ donor and her best friend take a field trip away from the hospital to an Indian casino in a place off Puget Sound named, of all things, “Point No Point.” The emergency beeper calls them back, but they are caught in a storm, and they end up holding each other in their car, waiting for the ferry to save their lives: “I grabbed her hands and clasped them together over her scar into a position of strength, like a prayer we wouldn’t be caught dead saying.” Here, at the extremes of hope and desperation, the characters are still afraid of doing something embarrassing, something genuine. This fear — of nakedness, of foolishness, of being unadorned — is a suffocating thing. At the last minute, Handler lets us hear the women as they pray. It’s a beautiful and complicated scene. Too often, though, he just won’t be caught dead with his tongue out of his cheek. A writer of remarkable promise, he treats his characters and art too lightly. Unfortunately.
ADVERBS | By DANIEL HANDLER | Ecco| 288 pages | $24 hardcover