You know how sometimes you read so much of an author that his tone of voice, his quirky eye for quirky things, his attachment to certain moods and turns of phrase and senses of humor become fully acclimated to your own tone of voice, your own quirky eye, your own moody and wordy and humorous attachments, at least in your own head, so that you forget that they came from somewhere and just think, “That’s the way things are; this is the way I think about the way things are,” and you think, “This is how the world is, to me; this is how I am, in the world,” and then you pick up another book by that author and you think, “This is interesting, but, frankly, he’s just saying what passes in my own mind, my own everyday mind, and how hard is that—I do it all the time,” and it takes you a while to realize that the reason the earth isn’t trembling as you read is not that you could have written this book just by being in the world, no, but that the book is written in the very language in which your mind has been taught to think, and you have to realize that before you can realize what new kinds of things it’s saying to you this time?
That’s how I am with Daniel Handler. I don’t love all his books. Of course, I am devoted to the splendid Series of Unfortunate Events. I enjoyed The Basic Eight very much, but it didn’t place Handler in my pantheon of Writers Too Brilliant To Be True, alongside the likes of Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, and Haruki Murakami. And I was actively disappointed by Watch Your Mouth, which just didn’t work, somehow. But last night I stayed up late finishing his most recent work, Adverbs, and I realized around 1:37am that all the barely conscious judgments I’d been passing on the book as I read, ranging from the enchanted to the skeptical, were not at all the point. The point is that this writer’s writing—its voice, its perhaps irritating delight in words, particularly in how they warp the real into truer shapes, its willful confusion of the funny and the sad, its dead-on sense of the infuriating, its sublimation of its fury into wordplay, because where else is it going to go—this writing rewrote my own mental processes some time ago, and now Daniel Handler and I are in a relationship. Probably a permanent one. I’m living in his waking dream of the world. It’s useless for me to say, “This book was really great” or “This book thinks it’s too clever by half,” because I might as well be giving a book report on the weather.
That said, I could add that this is the first piece of Handler’s writing under his own name that demonstrated to me how moving he can be. Never sentimental, of course, because sentiment has to believe on some level that it lives outside of wordplay, and nothing in a Handler novel does. But his chapters on the friendships between women were captivating—I was reminded of a Dorothy Parker story I have to look up to be sure it really exists—and by whatever devices and sleights of hand, the book did leave me with the sense that I’d just read as true an exposition of Love as a young, self-conscious, too clever, wordy person can find.