It’s back! The blog advent calendar. I enjoyed last year’s blog theme last year—re-reading twenty-four books of my youth—so much, so this year I’m applying the same approach to short stories, trawling through a myriad bunch of collections and anthologies I’ve read in the last few years.
December 17th: Adverbs by Daniel Handler
Tell me about your first time: Today post isn’t about a specific short story, but a whole book of them. Sort of.
I read Adverbs when I was fifteen or sixteen or so. I wasn’t a childhood fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events; I was a voracious and indiscriminatory reader at that age, so it may have been swept up amongst a whole selection of ill-fitting choices. Although this is the kind of book I would absolutely pick up now, it’s unlikely to have been then, so no doubt it languished at the bottom of my library book pile for some time.
And then I read it.
I’d never really read what might be loosely termed ‘adult’ novels (or ‘grown-up’ if you were my patronising aunt, with the unspoken word ‘proper’ not quite vocalised.) I’d never read books about people in love that weren’t slushy and trite; I’d never read books about people who have sex that aren’t euphemistic and one-handed; I’d never read characters that were frustrating, and oddly-shaped, and cynical, and wise. I’d never even really read short stories, so I didn’t know if the strange, circular, interconnected, referential nature of the book was how they were meant to be done. But nonetheless (or perhaps, ‘and so obviously…’, depending on your view), it blew me away. There were moments in it, evoked in an off-kilter, almost unsettling way, that I remembered long after: the man in the field waiting for the city opposite to be destroyed; the veiled threat of the man stuck on a hill with an injured leg; the snow queen and the frozen diner. For years after, if asked to recommend essential reading to people, I would always recommend Adverbs.
Sum it up: The publisher’s is as good as any, though it sounds much more prosaic than it is. ‘In a series of intersecting narratives that explore variations of that ineffable feeling, Handler crafts a moving and shifting story exploring the frustrating glory of this most troublesome of emotions. Two friends, one dying and one lonely; an adolescent’s first homosexual stirrings for his sister’s boyfriend; a doomed, enormously inappropriate tryst between a taxi driver and his passenger; a high-school crush that falls painfully short of a movie projected on a grungy screen.’
Give me a quote: “Love is hourly, too. There are stories about people who have loved someone forever after laying eyes on them for a few minutes and then nevermore, but these stories have not happened to anyone we know. No, when you love someone you spend hours and hours with them, and even the mightiest forces in the netherworld could not say whether the hours you spend increase your love or if you simply spend more hours with someone as your love increases. And when the love is over, you want all those horuos back, along with anything you left at the lover’s house and maybe a couple of things which aren’t technically yours on the grounds that you wasted a portion of your life and those hours have all gone southside. Nobody can make this better, it seems, nothing on the menu.”
Second reading: I had real worries coming back to this, because there was a good chance that much of what I remembered as brilliant in Adverbs wasn’t peculiar to that book, and simply a case of my own inexperienced surprise at discovering things I thought were new and exciting but were in fact well-worn and old. Thankfully, none of that was true.
I still love Adverbs. In fact, I love it even more, because where I once found something slightly alien and jagged about the characters, now I find many of them resonant and poignant. Where the musings on the forms of love seemed fanciful and sometimes hard-boiled, now often they chimed with recognition. Everything I loved the first time is still there: the tangential, ambiguous links between stories, the diversion into fictions-within-fictions, the lurking sense of absurd magic, the apocalyptic sense of threat that is both omnipresent and completely unexamined. But I also found new things to love: the almost perverse approach to love is both deeply cynical and deeply sincere, the combination of which I found potently identifiable; the casual appearance of gay characters that somehow I failed to give their due as a closeted gay teen; and favourite of all, the arch, authorial voice that I recognise now as a close cousin of Lemony Snicket, and as I grow older I find more and more to be my preferred style of narrative, both in reading and writing.
And, because this blog has up til now been about single short stories, the one I would pick out on my second reading was ‘Soundly’, the story of two lifelong friends, one of whom is dying; oddly enough it wasn’t one I had remembered at all, but I found it quite moving on my re-read. It begins sharp and sarcastic, drip-feeding information until the cynicism gives way to poignancy, and then u-turns with the arrival of a Gladys, a charismatic, wish-granting older lady – and then turns on its head once more as its story collides with the narrative of the rest of the book. In some ways its the most human of all the stories here, and in some ways its the most grand; mostly, it’s wonderful.
Where can I read it: Buy it where good books are sold, and also where fairly bad books are sold. The UK paperback has the prettier cover.