The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
After reading David Levithan’s contribution to Geektastic, “Quiz Bowl Antichrist”, I knew I had to read more of this man’s wonderful writing. Oddly enough, the universe agreed—I won a copy of his latest, The Lover’s Dictionary, on Twitter a few days after finishing that anthology. The Lover’s Dictionary began life as a Valentine’s Day story written for Levithan’s friends; accordingly, it was published on Valentine’s Day of this year. When I finally swung by the college post office to pick up my book, I took it back and read it in one setting. That’s both because of the fact that this book is so short—it’s a collection of dictionary entries—and because Levithan’s writing is so wonderful.
The Lover’s Dictionary is composed of dictionary entries by a nameless narrator. The narrator, a young man living in New York, details his relationship with “you”, whom he met online through a dating website. Through these entries, a narrative of hope, humor, betrayal, and, of course, love emerges, as the narrator and his lover (a term, incidentally, that the narrator hates) negotiate the ups and downs of love.
As I mentioned above, The Lover’s Dictionary is slim—I processed the whole thing (reading and entering into my commonplace book) in about two hours. But, despite its attention to the details that make it up, it’s refreshingly like a fable. While the narrator is quite clearly male, the lover’s gender is intentionally left vague (although they are clearly male-attracted), and names are only used for friends. (Incidentally, I’m kind of irritated by reviews assuming the lover is female. Heteronormativity can go die in a fire.) This allows the reader to map themselves onto these characters—and yes, even I was able to map myself onto the narrator, who also (initially, at least) likes reading better than sex and fears the possibility of losing one’s identity in a relationship. (I will totally admit, towards the end, to be imagining the narrator and his lover as Godfrey Norton and his much more infamous wife, Irene Adler.) It’s an interesting way to go about telling this story, and, I think, necessary for such an odd format.
While The Lover’s Dictionary advertised as a novel (it’s right there on the cover!), it’s more of an epistolary piece; the traditional structure of a novel are eschewed for something much more poetic. In my post-1700s British Literature class, our professor often talks about the differences between poetry of the 1800s and modern poetry—the former focuses on showing a single subject from myriad angles in order to better appreciate the subject. This is what Levithan does here. We see the narrator and his lover on their first date, meeting each other’s families, and dealing with the lover’s betrayal in flashes and glimpses—one of the most affecting scenes is one where it takes several dictionary entries to find out what actually happened. Naturally, since it’s from the narrator’s point of view, we learn more about him, but the subject of this piece is how much he loves his lover—in fact, the entry for motif simply states, “You don’t love me as much as I love you” (144), one of the narrator’s worst fears. It’s these details that are focused on; the pride or disillusionment a drunk lover can give you, reaching over someone in bed to check the weather, deciding how to arrange your newly conjoined libraries. Their connection—on a human and not just solely a sexual level—is explored from every angle. Of particular note is the two funerals in the lover’s family, similar entries (right down to word choice) that say so much in their differing details. It’s a slim piece (what can I call it?), but it’s quite deep.
As I noted in “Quiz Bowl Antichrist” (and what a great name for a short story!), Levithan’s writing can be sublime. The Lover’s Dictionary would only work if the language was arresting and beautiful, and it is—although there’s something cynical lurking beneath the surface, which, as I gather, is present in most of his work. The narrator, who is actually writing this dictionary as a way to process the lover’s betrayal, is fascinated by words and their relationship to each other (I see what you did there, Levithan)—he ponders the relationship between “banal” and “bane” and refers to learning about his lover’s past boyfriends as “paleontology”. There are some oddly dark moments—the lover takes revenge on a primary school tormentor of the narrator anonymously—but ultimately, The Lover’s Dictionary is a poetic portrait of two real people in real love.
Bottom line: The Lover’s Dictionary may advertise itself as a novel, but it’s actually an epistolary piece that takes a relationship between two unidentified lovers and looks at it poetically from every angle. It may be slim and short—barely over two hundred pages (and most of those pages are only half-filled)—but it’s a deep work that allows the reader to map themselves (or whomever they want) onto these characters and focus on the threads that make up love, as messy as it is.
I won this book in a contest.
- Levithan, David. The Lover’s Dictionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Grioux, 2011. Print.