Adjectives for Handler’s ‘Adverbs’: well-worded, mediocre

by Erin Salvi

It starts promisingly—immediately and obviously a clever piece of prose that perhaps seems like a good idea but only briefly achieves the level of profundity that it truly hopes to touch upon. Handler’s premise for his novel, “Adverbs,” is this: it is not what we do that is important, but rather the way in which we do things. Hence all of the adverbs that serve as titles for each of the novel’s chapters. It’s an interesting premise but one that Handler does not explore to its fullest potential.

Handler is best known for his extremely popular children’s series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which tracks the trials and tribulations of the Baudelaire orphans as they narrowly avoid the clutches of the nefarious Count Olaf. He has, though, also taken a stab at writing a few novels, “Adverbs” being the most recent. Unfortunately for Handler, he seems to have a better grasp of the morose and macabre, as in “A Series,” than he does of—love, the topic he struggles with throughout this latest novel.

In reality, actually, one can hardly call this a novel. “Adverbs” is more like a collection of short stories that are vaguely connected by certain themes and motifs barely holding the book together. Characters that appear in one chapter might be found in the background of a scene in another chapter, but if Handler is attempting to create a web-of-life story, he is unsuccessful. He frequently uses names more than once, from chapter to chapter, but they often appear to be being attributed to different characters. To what purpose? It’s hard to say; there are only two or three characters that Handler actually brings to life for the reader to care about.

If there’s one thing I can give Handler credit for, it’s that he is quite the wordsmith. He plays with language as few writers do, twisting the traditional view of a word into something completely different, describing images in a unique way. “Taxi cabs lining the streets like kernels of corn on the cob.” Things like that. However, Handler is well aware of his abilities with words, and his writing can get just a bit too cute and clever for his own good. A writer shouldn’t simply use his book in order to showcase his capabilities. A book does not succeed unless it can take the reader to a higher level of understanding than he or she had experienced before. Moreover, while cleverness can be an excellent element in a novel as long as it is not the only element, Handler tends to use the same gimmicks over and over again; this can work well in children’s literature but make the mature reader feel belittled.

There is some gorgeous prose in this book. But it occurs in bits and pieces, never in lengthy stretches of writing. “Obviously” is a very charming chapter in which a boy is inspired to chivalrous acts in a movie theater from his reading of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” His most successful chapter, “Soundly,” is actually a very powerful story about two best friends, one of whom is dying. It’s really a shame that the rest of the chapters are not nearly as successful. Anyone who has ever taken a literature class knows that it is important to “show, don’t tell,” but Handler seems to have misheard, and instead gives us a show and tell. Maybe next time he’ll put away the adverbs and pull out a few more nouns.

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