Fiction and nonfiction releases from David Levithan, Mike Brown and Jessica Harris.
Can words alone define a relationship? Maybe not, but author David Levithan pushes the boundaries of the language of love in his new book, The Lover's Dictionary. From A to Z, Levithan (who by day serves as an editor at Scholastic and has written several best-selling young adult novels, including Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) defines the good, bad and ugly moments of a relationship — and explains that the book began as part of a Valentine's Day tradition.
Ever since he was a teenager, Levithan has been writing a Valentine's Day story for a group of family and friends. A few years ago, with the deadline looming, he found himself out of ideas. Then he noticed a book sitting on his desk called Words You Need to Know.
"I looked at it and I thought, oh, this could be interesting" he says. "Could I tell the story of a relationship by just randomly picking words in alphabetical order from this book and then writing entries as if were a dictionary?"
Levithan says the story and the characters revealed themselves entirely through the words he picked as he turned the pages of the book — and he chose them all in alphabetical order. Like all love stories, this one has its romantic moments, but it doesn't take long to realize that the two lovers Levithan describes also have some major problems.
"I didn't know what those problems necessarily were until I started writing," Levithan says. "They came up pretty quickly. There's a drinking problem, there's an infidelity issue. And those actually all started to rear their head in 'A,' and that became the crux of the conflict throughout the book."
One moment, this couple is falling in love, settling in and moving in together — and the next, they are hurt, angry and mistrustful of each other. Their story tumbles out in a torrent of words; nothing about it unfolds in a linear way. Levithan says that was quite deliberate.
"I did want to just keep shifting the recollections and shifting the pieces of the relationship that the narrator is writing down, because I feel that's how remembering a relationship works," he says. "When you think about a relationship, you think about a good thing and then a bad thing. You have something that really annoys you, but then you remember a really sweet and tender moment, and that's the complicated nature, I think, of all relationships."
Some of the definitions in the book are as short as one word. Celibacy is defined in two letters: N/A. Other words evoke little stories that take the reader deeper into the relationship. At one point the narrator seems to lose faith in words, to doubt whether they really can convey the truth of what has happened, and is still happening, between these two people.
Levithan, however, says he never lost his own faith in the power of language as he wrote the book. Words may fail at times, but without them, he says, love would falter.
"This is a glimpse of a relationship. It cannot be the entirety of a relationship between pages," he says. "You can't do that. I think the question is whether the narrator is correct here, saying no matter how many words there are, there will never be enough. I think absolutely there will never be enough to represent life. But certainly there can be enough to actually navigate life and get through life and find happiness and love."
The Lover's Dictionary, Levithan says, is not so much a love story as it is a story about love, in all its messy complicated reality.
"It is funny to see it on Valentine's Day tables," he says. "It almost feels subversive that way, but at the same time I think the reaction I have gotten so far is a real love for the book because it does reflect what people go through accurately. There are a lot of people on Valentine's Day who don't really want the construction-paper heart version of love to share with the lover, boyfriend, husband, girlfriend, wife or whomever. They actually want to share something real with them."
David Levithan, an editorial director at Scholastic Books and a popular author of young adult fiction (including an unusually un-fraught novel about gay adolescents, Boy Meets Boy), brings ingenuity and a wry edge to his first adult novel. The Lover's Dictionary cleverly uses about 200 unorthodox word definitions, from aberrant to zenith, to tell the story of a couple who meet online, move in together and struggle to weather infidelity.
The cheated-upon steadier mate, who narrates, is male, but it's deliberately unclear whether his poorly behaved lover, who comes from a less happy home and drinks, flirts and buys shoes to excess, is male or female. Amazingly, it doesn't really matter. Also left open to interpretation is whether the relationship endures — an uncertainty some readers may find intriguing, others frustrating.
Although its originality is incontestable, The Lover's Dictionary does bring to mind some antecedents, including Alain de Botton's 1993 novel On Love, which, via numbered sections under chapter headings such as "Romantic Fatalism," "Idealism" and "Suicide," relays the ups and downs of a romance begun on an airplane. It also evokes Ambrose Bierce's sardonic but non-narrative 1911 The Devil's Dictionary, another glossary packed with personality and sharp opinions that deviate from standard definitions. For the record, the cynical Bierce defines "love," in part, as "the folly of thinking much of another before one knows anything of oneself," or, alternately, "a temporary insanity curable by marriage."
Levithan's lexicon seems to invite casual browsing through its brief entries, each sprawled on a king-size mattress of a page all to itself. But while he revels in modern nonlinear storytelling, Levithan has made an elaborate bed that requires assembling the various pillows and shams in a specific order, proceeding very deliberately from brash ("I loved the notion that the night was mine to spend, and I immediately decided to spend it on you") to breach ("I didn't want to know who he was, or what you did, or that it didn't mean anything"). Details of the narrator's pained reaction to his lover's betrayal are doled out and amplified in succeeding entries, such as: "leery, adj. Those first few weeks, after you told me, I wasn't sure we were going to make it. ... Finally, I said, 'It's over' "; and "persevere, v. You started to cry, and I quickly said, 'No — I mean this part is over. We have to get to the next part.' "
Among the novel's pleasures are micro-stories that speak volumes, reminiscent of Lydia Davis' work. Two, in their entirety, read: "antsy, adj. I swore I would never take you to the opera again," and, "kerfuffle, n. From now on, you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties. One. Preferably a beer."
There's plenty of reflection, not just on the relationship but on the attempt to distill and describe such complex feeling, including this: "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." That, by the way, is Levithan's definition of ineffable.