BREAKING NEWS
L.A. Now

Arguably

Daniel Handler is the author of "The Basic Eight" and "Watch Your Mouth" and, as Lemony Snicket, the children's novels in "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

This adapted excerpt is from Daniel Handler's new novel, "Adverbs." Copyright 2006 by Daniel Handler. Published by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

*

Money money money money money money money money. Let no one say it has no place in a love story. It has a particular place. It is something on the right shelf. When Helena bought the Chianti there was no question which shelf she'd take it from. "We have the cheap stuff on the right, and then it gets more and more expensive as you go along," said the liquor guy.

"You don't say," Helena said. She took a cigarette out of her ripped purse and lit it because she smoked. She was a smoker.

"I like to put the expensive stuff here where I can keep an eye on it," the guy said.

Helena blew a smoke ring, which was illegal in this country. "Well," she said, "I'll be over here, as far as possible from you."

"You have a sexy accent," the guy said. "Are you from someplace?"

"Yes," Helena said. "I'm from Britain, originally."

"I told you," the guy said. "Because you can't smoke in a liquor store in San Francisco. In California, and everyone knows it. So I figured you're new."

"I guess I am new," Helena said, and walked toward him with a bottle. "I imagine you have a lot to teach me," and this is a good example. Why would she say this? Helena was a young woman, originally from Britain, whatever that means. She was a smoker. She had a sexy accent and a bottle of wine in her hands. The wine was Chianti, also from Europe and very cheap in this case, but that was no excuse for the "I imagine you have a lot to teach me," or that milder, less scrutable joke about being cheap herself. Why behave this way? Helena was beginning to think there was no particular reason. Arguably, of course, there was a particular reason that Helena could not find. Perhaps she had left it in Britain. She paid for her wine, in American currency. Money money money money money.

Helena had moved to New York first. She planned to stay there and work on a new book until her money ran out. Her money ran out in nine days. Prices will have changed as people read this book, so I'll try to explain it this way: Let's say Helena arrived in New York with money from the American publication of her first novel in the amount of $700 billion. She found a hovel of an apartment, crawling with grimy American insects, that cost $500 billion a month to rent, and half a million usually went to the taxi driver who took her there. Milk—milk!—cost $100,000. A pair of smashing, striking new boots cost over $1 billion. Nine days was actually something of a miracle, although not the miracle Helena was hoping for. Unfortunately this is also the way she explained it to her husband.

David sighed when he heard it. "You really shouldn't say smashing or striking," he said, possibly to change the subject. "Those are terms from Britain, really. In America smashing or striking means something different, sort of violent. You know, I'm smashing and striking you. It's all the same to me, but if we're going to live here—"

"We can't afford to live here," Helena said in her boots. "To live in New York for nine days costs more than the gross national product of my country of origin."

"Have you written anything?" David asked.

"Yes, I've written something," Helena said. She had two drafts of the first sentence of a novel, on the index cards taped to the end of the tub where she could look at them in the bath, if that's the expression. One was, "I imagine you have a lot to teach me," and the other was, "I imagine you are going to teach me a lot." She hadn't decided between the two, but she also had something a little longer written in a $400,000 notebook.

"Take it to your editor," David said. "Show your editor what you have written and he'll give you some money."

Helena knew that's not how it goes but she went to lunch. "Something new?" the editor said with a frown. He was Caucasian, or white, and it was almost Christmas. Helena forged ahead with her plan of reading it out loud.

Dear Mother,

I am about to run out of money. Please send me some money. I need a lot of money. Please send me all, or nearly all, of your money. Money money money money money. Please, mommy. I love you.

Love,

Helena

"And," Helena said, "in parentheses, your daughter."

The editor took a bite of paid-for cheese but he didn't look content. "That's from your new novel?"

"No," Helena said. "That's a letter to my mother. My new novel is a love story, but the love story, your editorship, requires money."

"The thing is," the editor said, and Helena waited for the thing. "We're still waiting for your first novel to really catch fire."

Helena liked this guy, and the idea of her novel catching fire, like a virgin thrown into a volcano, if one were available, the heat from the center of the earth catching first the pages and then the cardboard cover and the dust jacket until her entire career was in ashes. It was a lovely idea but it didn't sound like a moneymaker. "What's the problem?" she said. "Why hasn't it caught on fire?"

"Just caught fire," the editor said, "is the American term. The title might be a problem. You called your novel 'Glee Club.' "

"I didn't just call it 'Glee Club,' " Helena said. Speakers embedded in the ceiling of the restaurant began to announce that they were dreaming of a white Christmas. "It's called 'Glee Club.' That's the title."

"It's a British term," the editor said, "and I think Americans might not know what it means."

"The term glee," Helena said out loud, "is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gliw or glzo (entertainment, fun) especially as connected with minstrelsy—playing, singing, dancing and perhaps even acrobatic feats. Until fairly recent times it was in this spirit that American college glee clubs, with rare exceptions, interpreted the term." This was from the "Harvard Dictionary of Music," second edition, revised and enlarged, by Willi Apel, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 14th printing, which she threw at David, for no particular reason she could think of, even that night in the bath. "See, they know it. They've had 200 years to know it. Britain and America are exactly the same. I'm tired of people saying they don't understand and that it's a British expression. I know what expression it is."

David had made some phone calls that afternoon, which again was a miracle. It was a miracle that the American government, in its 200 plus years of ruthless history, did not have the common sense to shut down Helena's phone line when there was no way in heaven or on earth that she would be able to come up with the millions of American dollars required to pay the bill. "Do you remember my old girlfriend Andrea?" he asked.

"Whom you loved," Helena said, "and who, you told me once in a fit of pique, gave you the best oral sex of your life?"

"That's the one," David said. "She works for an arts something in San Francisco and thinks she can get you a gig at a school."

David had this kindness thing he did that occasionally drove Helena up a wall with jealousy, if that's the term. She loved him, but arguably this wasn't enough. She had failed him, because her novel, "Glee Club," first edition, St. Martin's Press, New York, New York, first printing, had failed to catch fire, and there were all these inexplicable things that came out of her mouth. Outside the restaurant she said to her editor, "What would happen if I slept with you?" The editor, to her relief, gave the question the same false consideration he had given to the two index cards she had slid his way over dessert. "I'd probably ejaculate," he said, and got into the waiting taxi. "I'll speak to you soon, Helena." And look at her now, saying, "What's the difference between moving to San Francisco and staying here in New York in utter misery without any money money?"

"It's all the same to me," David said, "but San Francisco is warmer and apparently the people are more something. A credit card could fly us there. Andrea was telling me about a great bar she went to, and an apartment she used to live in, and there's a rumor that the entire city is resting on an active volcano. They just discovered. Everyone's skittish so the rent is low, and plus, of course, they're afraid of terrorists."

"I am," Helena said, "also afraid of terrorists. And I'm afraid I don't know what a gig is."

"It's a job," David said. "A teaching job in San Francisco. We'll kill two birds with one stone."

"Dead birds everywhere," Helena said out loud. "Littering that famous bridge they have over in San Francisco. The Gate Bridge."

"Golden." David was picking off the traces of tape Helena had left at the end of the tub, as if they were already hoping for the security deposit back. "I think we might do better there, scrape scrape scrape," he and his fingernails said, "and your mother scrape scrape thinks the same thing."

Helena's mother. Helena's mother. Mother mother mother. Helena thinks of her mother visiting, and that she could throw her into the active volcano. But what if these arguments were wrong? She leaned toward her husband and gave him a big kiss where the book had hit him. This is love, moving to where the money is, and all the while a volcano or an ex-girlfriend might blow the whole thing to hell, as the Americans say. As everybody says. Arguably there was more to this story, and there is. "But what if there's no volcano?" Helena said. "What am I going to do then?"

"I imagine," David said, "you are going to teach."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
48°