The author of the popular Lemony Snicket series of children’s books puts a playful spin on adult themes of love and lust, showing a narrative ingenuity that should delight readers interested in exploring the possibilities of fiction.
The third non-Lemony book from Handler (after Watch Your Mouth, 2000) finds him challenging conventional categories. This initially appears to be a selection of short stories, even parables, with each of the 16 taking a different adverb as its title (“Immediately,” “Arguably,” “Symbolically” and, as a change of pace, “Often”). Teachers generally instruct fledgling writers to eliminate adverbs whenever possible (only passive verbs suffer from greater linguistic disrepute), yet Handler makes his strategy succeed, frequently putting the titular adverb at the service of a broader theme. In “Obviously,” he examines the essence of “kissassedness.” “Briefly” is the briefest piece here, and includes the pivotal appearance of a boy’s briefs. “Soundly” culminates in a boat ferrying across a sound. And so on. Yet in almost subliminal fashion, the author encourages the reader to make connections between the stories, with the repetition of recurring motifs involving magpies and money, plot lines that seem to leapfrog from pieces at the beginning to ones toward the end and the reappearance of characters (who may actually be different characters with the same name). Even the narrative “I” is suspect—sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. Some might find the key to the narrative strategy in “Truly,” which the author characterizes as an “essay” and in which he purports to drop the fictional pretense in favor of straightforward autobiography and explanation of authorial intent. Or is this just another twist of the metafictional maze? Whether one approaches this as a novel (in the loosest sense) or a series of somehow connected stories, Handler’s prose is warm, funny, smart and addictively readable. It might even send some adult readers to Lemony Snicket to see what they’ve been missing.
Experimental fiction is rarely this emotionally engaging.