THERE is probably more literature devoted to the topic of love than there are holes in all of Switzerland’s cheese exports. Romantic love, platonic love, sexual love — everything is fair game for anyone with access to a pen, some paper, and a rhyming dictionary. This is probably why David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary is such a welcome breath of fresh air. Advertised as a novel, it is more a poem than anything else: an epistle to ardour and affection that flings rose-tinted glasses off to the side of the highway and takes a long, hard look at the shadows cast by the edifices of passion.
Best-known for his young-adult fiction, Levithan demonstrates that his ability to tell a story easily translates beyond genre borders. A slim book, The Lover’s Dictionary comprises a series of dictionary entries by an unnamed narrator, each defined in terms of a relationship. The male narrator uses this format to detail his relationship with an equally mysterious “you”, someone he met through an online dating website. The vagueness of this game of pronouns allows for readers to easily project their own experiences onto these characters, not least of all because Levithan uses his narrative technique to create a sort of T-shaped experience: his story covers the horizontal breadth of issues associated with love and being in a relationship, but also plummets vertically, achieving depth by exploring a single subject from a whole host of perspectives.
Levithan avoids most, if not all, pitfalls of cliché and stereotype by slicing and dicing his story, jumping back and forth between time and space, between people and places. In reimagining the story of love, he turns to vignettes of passion and of infidelity: just as readers find themselves snickering at the definition of “brash”, (“I want you to spend the night”), he delivers a swift kick to our collective stomach with his interpretations of “breach”, (“I didn’t want to know who he was, or what you did, or that it didn’t mean anything”), and “motif”, (“you don’t love me as much as I love you”). The format and theme of this novel both inevitably tilt towards the content being twee and excessively saccharine, but what Levithan instead produces is a grown-up story, a tale of a love affair between two people who — like all of us — should know better, but don’t.
We see the couple on their first date, we experience their first meetings with each other’s families, we suffer through the misery of betrayal and adultery, and of trying to find out what has actually happened… and what will eventually occur. For a book that is mostly composed of short entries, the longest running to perhaps half-a-page, there is a surprising amount of meaty text for consumption. Levithan doesn’t shy away from jumping at material on which to reflect, despite many self-referential, tongue-in-cheek moments: “Ineffable: Trying to write about love is ultimately like trying to have a dictionary represent life. No matter how many words there are, there will never be enough.” There is also a wonderful undercurrent of harsh reality that underpins this story and is brought out by the tale itself. There is a wickedness to the wordplay in The Lover’s Dictionary, but there is wonderfully, no malice: it is genuinely affectionate. Even when loss and betrayal come flying at us, they are handled and directed with a sense of care and investiture that is both rare to encounter and difficult to pull off.
The Lover’s Dictionary succeeds primarily because it manages to tap into a collective subconscious without any pandering or condescending to readers. It is difficult to avoid empathising with Levithan’s characters, despite their lack of a coherent, formulated identity; they may lack names, but they do not lack substance or feeling, and readers will be hard-pressed to dissociate. One of the most clever moves by Levithan is to present a multiplicity of viewpoints; while emotions are often very clearly presented, reactions and responses are left to the imagination.
By sticking to this format, Levithan manages to show rather tell us what his characters are experiencing. To forgo narrative in favour of jump-cuts and textual shuffling is a clever bit of sleight-of-pen, post-modernism be damned. In assigning definitions to words, filtering them through the lens of romance, Levithan brings a powerful lucidity to the imaginary conceits we all create for ourselves, the self-imposed blinkers we don with glee as we fall prey to the excitement and joy of finding that other half of and for ourselves.
This is, after all, the dictionary of one lover, yet it manages to span many, unifying an audience for whom love is and may always remain a mysterious, ineffable thing, the stuff of myth and legend, tragedy and desperation, all frequently running in parallel. “Love”? Levithan’s narrator wonders, searching for a definition. “I’m not even going to try.” Yet we, his readers, may not be able to stop.
The Lover's Dictionary (NOVEL) By David Levithan Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US ISBN 0374193681 224pp. $13