Mostly Adverbs (but also some chocolate)


011) Adverbs by Daniel Handler, finished February 4

I've bumped into Daniel Handler on a number of avenues including SoUE Street, Some Wrong Questions Stretch, Latke Lane, Orchestra Overpass, and Wholphin Way, and I am a great fan of his. Largely because I feel he is a fellow Baizerrist and unlike some others encroaching on territory I thought I discovered as a teenager, I feel like he's playing the game at the level I intend to.

Now, working as I am on the Curses & Llew novel and the Personal Progress screenplay, I finally took this book from next to my bed where it has sat for literally years waiting patiently, knowing I was looking forward to someday reading it. (According to this, incidentally, although I had forgotten, I've read one of these stories before.)

Anyway, whatever. The point is I wanted to read a novel that would do interesting things with language as I am trying to do interesting things with language and I wanted to be challenged by someone I thought would do it well. Handler delivered.

Being more familiar with his work for young readers, I was mostly struck, language-wise, through the first portions of the novel, how he's taken the games he plays as Lemony Snicket and sometimes refined them, sometimes grotesqued them---altered them in many a ways---and created an adult book. The same reliance on repetition and refrain, for instance. The same talking about words and phrases as living, potent things. The same quoting of outside texts, some real some not with no clear distinction between the two. The same living narrator whose omniscience requires the reader to grapple with his role (with a decidedly more postmodern conclusion demanded in Adverbs). In other words, I had a hard time placing Handler's work here in any tradition other than the one he coöpted and recreated from children's lit for the Series of Unfortunate Events.

Let's pause for a moment to talk about the structure of the novel. After the first few chapters, I thought that the "A NOVEL" label was a feint to force me to line up unrelated tales. Yes, as it progressed the overlaps became more clear, but I found it certainly---at least through the first 75%---as much a short-story collection as a novel.

What finally makes it unquestionably a novel is also what threw me out of my lazy consideration of it as Unfortunate Events: The Adult Version with a Penis or Two.

The 13th of 17 chapters is TRULY (each chapter is titled an adverb) which begins "This part's true." And, sure, okay. True like fiction is true, but something else as well. This self-designated essay is written wholly from the narrator's point of view who is Daniel Handler, I suppose, though he remains unnamed, though he's as Daniel Handlery as someone else might be Kurt Vonneguty, you bet.

I make this comparison intentionally. Prior to TRULY, I had been thinking of this novel's intention as an artistically equivalent sidestep from the Series of Unfortunate Events. Thanks to TRULY, I now see how Handler is a descendant of Vonnegut, which understanding gives me a better sense of the novel as a whole. Starting with seeing it as a novel as a whole.

The stories have characters named Joe and Andrea and Eddie and other names that repeat that repeat that repeat and are they the same person or are they not? Questions of identity swirl about and refuse to land as volcanoes and unnamed catastrophes destroy or don't destroy San Francisco or Seattle and magpies appear here and there and everywhere or maybe they are parakeets.

A reasonable person might suggest that an essay three-quarters of the way into a novel telling the reader what to think is a terrible idea and put that way I would agree with you. But TRULY doesn't tell you what to think at all. It may make some points regarding, say, magpies or what fiction can do, but most of what I took from this essay was a sense of the tradition Handler was working from and my own application of this knowledge is what brought the whole thing together for me. That and this one sentence that should perhaps offend my sense of figuring-things-out-for-myself but which I found too appropriate to be annoyed by and which I am giving to you without sufficient context:
It 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. It is the way love gets done. . . . (194)
Love stories are as common as spit on the sidewalk, alas to how special your own love story seems to you. Love isn't that special. What's special is how you do love, how I do love, how we do love, how this love does this love. The adverbs.

A couple more side notes on the book.

First side note: BARELY, the penultimate story, stars Sam, a name that threw me as I did not think I had seen it before. And her friend falls in love with someone else and, inevitably, they will someday leave her life and forget her and that will be that, and Sam has no love story of her own waiting for her, and this is a book of love stories, and when she delivers the missing beloved bird to the woman across the street and the woman is so happy we learn that Sam, "somebody help her, this is the only story she is in" (258), a line that broke my heart. At first because this suggested that in her life, Sam will never be a vital part of anyone's story. She doesn't matter much to anyone in the long run. And then, I was a tad stunned to realize that it also meant that Sam is a name I had not seen in this novel before and would not see again. Artificiality enforcing realism.

Second side note: Listen to this and tell me if you don't hear the ghost of Vonnegut. A big breakfast weighs you down in the United States, not what you want to eat if you're going to work at stopping a disease. Nonetheless, Joe had eggs. He worked at a place called Stop AIDS Now, a political and/or social organization the aim of which is to stop AIDS, a terrible disease that has killed millions of people and which is spread through two acts much associated with love:having sex and having babies, now. At the time of this writing, lets' face it, nobody knows what to do about this. There's drugs but they don't work, and there's bigotry which for some reason works real well at the job of making everything worse, and people keep on performing acts of love and they dying, all over the world, all over the place. Joes' job thought that enough was enough, among other strategies. It was a worthwhile job and so paid not that well, but Joe told himself he didn't need much money, which is a common and surprisingly not-that-difficult thing to do. Eggs are cheap. Joe tried to stop AIDS now Monday through Friday except when he was sick or really wanted to go to a movie instead of to work, or was called---summoned, they call it, for jury duty. What happens with jury duty is, for a week maybe you get to be one of the twelve people who decides if someone's a criminal, maybe nothing happens. Neither is really that taxing. Thus eggs. (259-260)

Anyway, Vonnegut didn't really have it in him to write a love story, did he? Thanks goodness, then, for this collection of adverbs.
twoïsh weeks


010) Death by Chocolate: Redux by David Yurkovich, finished February 3

As I read the stories in this collection, I wasn't sure Yurkovich realized what the strengths of his concept was. Then I read his note in the back and I was convinced of it.

Here's the set up:

Vacationing chocolatier visits a Swiss chocolate factory and gets separated from his tour group. He overhears employees talking about how they've imprisoned an alien consciousness and trapped it in their machines, forcing it to make chocolate. They spot our hapless hero who tries to escape, ultimately plummeting into a vat of boiling chocolate. He becomes pure chocolate and is controlled by the vengeful alien. Eventually the alien leaves him---and leaves him with the power to change anything into pure chocolate. That's your origin story.

As a send-up of superhero stories, this origin cannot be beat. It is pure ridiculous. And the first story just grows in absurdity, making it a nice critique of superhero stories generally.

The further stories vary in success. Sometimes it ceases to be a joke at all. I can accept all these stories as long as we all remember that what we're reading is absurd. But at times the comic forgot how silly it was and wanted to be taken seriously. And that's when I stopped taking it seriously.

So overall? Some great concepts, some fun, some disappointment.
most of a week

Previously in 2014 . . . . :

Books sixth through ninth
009) The End of the World by Don Hertzfeldt, finished January 31
008) Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, finished January 24
007) Drop Shot by Harlan Coben, finished January 18
006) Cardboard by Doug TenNaple, finished January 15

Books first through fifth
005) The Complete Peanuts: 1991-1992 by Charles M. Schulz, finished January 10
004) City of Brick and Shadow by Tim Wirkus, finished January 9
003) Harem Scarem in El Cerrito by Neva Calvert Carpenter, finished January 4
002) iPlates Volume II: Prophets, Priests, Rebels, and Kings by Stephen Carter and Jett Atwood, finished January 4
001) Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, finished January 3

final booky posts of

2014 = 2013 = 2012 = 2011 = 2010 = 2009 = 2008 = 2007

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