“Love was in the air, so both of us walked through love on our way to the corner. We breathed it in, particularly me: the air was also full of smells and birds, but it was the love, I was sure, that was tumbling down to my lungs, the heart’s neighbours and confidants.”
Daniel Handler, Adverbs (2006)
It’s hard to summarise Daniel Handler’s Adverbs in one paragraph. It’s hard to summarise it at all. Simply put, it’s a collection of short stories revolving around love and ways of loving. Each story has its own adverb for a title. They cover all sorts of love, some ludicrous, some heart-warming, some laughable. How you love becomes the focus – ‘Naturally’, ‘Judgementally’, ‘Collectively’- which bring up interesting ideas about whether there’s a right way to love. Some characters are definitely doing it wrong.
The two shining lights in the collection for me were ‘Immediately’ and ‘Obviously’. In ‘Immediately’, the narrator abandons his girlfriend on the side of the road and instantly falls in love with his taxi driver, Peter. Peter is not so thrilled by this. The narrator is so unnervingly rational about this love-at-first-sight experience: ‘Best to give him space. I didn’t let the fact that I no longer lived at Thirty-seventh and what’s-it pressure us into moving in together’. It highlights how ridiculous the love-at-first-sight trope is. You can’t love someone you don’t know. The narrator of ‘Obviously’, a teenage usher crushing on his co-worker, is less delusional but equally blinded by love. Having read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in class, he’s desperate to show the object of his affections that he is gallant but his attempts to impress her may have been a dream.
The same character reappear in many of the stories, or maybe not. Helen, Tomas, Andrea, Allison, Joe and Stephen all turn up several times but whether they are the same Helens and Stephens is unclear. It’s a little distracting trying to connect all their relationships to one another. Confusion and ambiguity does play a large part, not always good, in the collection.
My relationship with adverbs recently has been tense. As a writing student I’ve been taught to cut them out of later drafts but Handler’s collection reminds me that when it comes to the big things, how they’re done changes everything.