Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More Than Just Three Little Words: "The Lover's Dictionary" by David Levithan

David Levithan has written a haiku of a novel.  I'm not even sure I could call The Lover's Dictionary a novel--at least not in the proper sense of cohesive plot and rising action.  The book, which is not much bigger or heavier than the average schoolboy's Valentine, is better described as a series of microfictions and meditations on relationships.

The Lover's Dictionary is loose, jumbled and broken into particles.  But isn't that how life beyond the boundaries of fiction unspools?  The answer to Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is" has always been: it's half-finished sentences by candlelight dinner constantly interrupted by the waiter.  It's digressions and diversions.  It's encapsulated haiku moments you remember for years.

I couldn't think of a better way to tell this story.  Levithan (co-author of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) has done something marvelous here; he's given us a fresh, creative approach to the standard meet-cute, fall-in-love, squabble-and-reconcile, music-montage romance which by now has worn the welcome mat threadbare.  Those elements are in there, but it's the way Levithan presents his material that makes all the difference.

As the title suggests, the entire book is a series of words and their definitions--from "aberrant" to"zenith."  Each word gets its own page and the length varies from one sentence to several paragraphs.  Levithan is literally trying to define love here as he charts the uneven course of two unnamed characters, a male narrator and a lover of indeterminate sex  known only as "you."  The only characters who get names are the best friends who lurk on the fringes after the couple starts dating.

The Lover's Dictionary moves in swift, non-linear fashion back and forth across the dating timeline, from their first meeting after an online dating service pairs them up ("I noticed on your profile that you said you loved Charlotte's Web") to the fights both petty (the cap on the toothpaste) and large (the slammed doors, the shoving, the scratching).  The plot, such as it is, revolves around one character's infidelity and the attempts to heal that rift.  But really, "what happens" on these pages is less interesting than how the story is told.  Like Ambrose Bierce and his Devil's Dictionary, Levithan's primer illustrates, word by word, what often cannot be defined by direct approach.  If we look askew at the subject through irony, then maybe it will make more sense.

The entries in The Lover's Dictionary range from the corny
brash, adj.
       "I want you to spend the night," you said.  And it was definitely your phrasing that ensured it.  If you had said, "Let's have sex" or, "Let's go to my place," or even "I really want you," I'm not sure we would have gone quite as far as we did.  But I loved the notion that the night was mine to spend, and I immediately decided to spend it on you.
to the sublime
paleontology, n.
       You couldn't believe the longest relationship I'd ever been in had only lasted for five months.
       "Ever?" you asked, as if I might have overlooked a marriage.
       I couldn't say, "I never found anyone who interested me all that much," because it was only our second date, and the jury was still hearing your case.
       I sat there as you excavated your boyfriends, laid the bones out on the table for me to see. I shifted them around, tried to reassemble them, if only to see if they bore any resemblance to me.
The Lover's Dictionary is often funny in the way it juxtaposes words with their fictional definitions:
bemoan, v.
       This is dedicated to your co-worker Marilynn.
       Marilynn, please stop talking about your sister's pregnancy.
       And please stop showing up late.
       And please stop asking my lover to drinks.
       And please stop humming while you type.
       I'm tired of hearing about it.

On the surface, The Lover's Dictionary may seem as slight and fleeting as a hasty lip-brushed kiss, but its impact is more like a deep, lingering hug.  This romantic lexicon has a lot to say about how we live and love in all those scattered haiku moments of our relationships.

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