Turns out Daniel Handler, best known for introducing a generation of children to dark, absurd post-modern literature under his Lemony Snicket handle, can enthrall grown-ups as well. The native San Franciscan's novel Adverbs, new in paperback this month, is a circus-contortionist act, a meditation on the vagaries of modern love that twists around itself in astounding and cringe-inducing ways. It reads less like a traditional novel and more like a dossier that has been dropped and hastily reassembled. Names, events, and characters surface and cross-reference each other obliquely in these 17 self-contained chapters, making the book as much of a jigsaw puzzle as a narrative. Handler is out to limn the concept of love, and his disaffected young San Franciscans experience the emotion straight, gay, platonic, always absurdly difficult in dark and poignant ways. "Soundly" is the most affecting chapter, following two girlfriends one a drunk, one dying of a mysterious, rare disease on a hasty, ill-fated road trip up the coast. The story could have been terribly maudlin, but Handler deftly shuffles in new layers of dread, heartbreak, magic, and bitter humor at every turn. Love isn't an answer, Adverbs says, it's a vital, desperate inquiry that we constantly make of each other. It's impossible, really, but we try anyway. "The miracle is the adverbs," Handler writes in "Truly," "the way things are done. It is the way love gets done despite every catastrophe." F.R.