The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan (2011)

 commonplace, adj.

It swings both ways, really.
I’ll see your hat on the table and I’ll feel such longing for you, even if you’re only in the other room. If I know you aren’t looking, I’ll hold the green wool up to my face, inhale that echo of your shampoo and the cold air from outside.
But then I’ll walk into the bathroom and find you’re forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste again, and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on (p 58).

lovers_dictionaryMy colleague and I have had a spirited disagreement this past week over the ‘you’ character in David Levithan’s debut adult book. Paper Pusher assumed the narrator’s partner was a female. I assumed the partner was male. What were these assumptions were based on? Paper Pusher and I pointed to the same early entry. The couple is at a restaurant and the narrator is surprised his partner isn’t drinking (an early indication the partner has a drinking problem). “I’m pregnant,” the partner jokes. “Whose is it?” our narrator throws a zinger back. I thought this was funnier as a conversation between two men. For Paper Pusher, it was an actual possibility the partner could be pregnant.

As we talked about how much we enjoyed the book, it became clear we were making assumptions about gender roles. So we reread and prepared to argue. Then, another colleague started to read the book and assumed the perspective alternated! Finally, I investigated and stumbled upon an interview with the author:

Q: Why did you decide to write the novel in first person, directed at a second person?

Levithan: The act of writing the book (for the narrator) is as much a part of the story as the story itself. I don’t want to explain the book too much, so I can leave it at that. And I wanted it to play like a love song you hear on the radio–the most effective love songs are somehow both specific and universal. You feel you are hearing someone else’s story, but at the same time you relate to it so much that their story doesn’t preclude your story. I wanted The Lover’s Dictionary to be like that.

So, it appears the narrator is a single person, but Levithan is clearly leaving the partner’s gender ambiguous (or perhaps Sal Kinsey is a hint?)

Levithan was very successful at including me (the reader) in his narrator’s story, regardless of anyone’s gender. I wanted to meet the narrator and say a few things (“I understand about the toothpaste cap! In the end, you have to decide if it’s something you can live with or not because he/she WON’T change.” “That disconnecting/hovering thing – I do that too! It helps me deal with the toothpaste stuff.” “Read ‘The Darling’ by Chekhov.”) It wasn’t my story but parts of it belonged in my story.

Well, it was a clever idea and well executed. I thought his non-linear approach was appropriate and smoothly done (each dictionary word brought additional meaning to even the shortest entries).

Q: The Lover’s Dictionary isn’t a linear story and is organized alphabetically, much like a traditional reference dictionary. How (if at all) did you change your writing process knowing that it would unfold this way?

Levithan: I loved writing in a nonlinear way. Because it feels to me like a more accurate way of how we recount relationships. They never come back to us as a narrative, told beginning-middle-end. Whether it’s over or ongoing, we remember it in flashes. Different moments from the past hit us at different moments in the present. So when the narrator sits down to recount the relationship to the lover, it makes sense to me that the relationship would appear to him in this way, with the words as the catalyst for the memories, and the memories adding up to the truth.

Memory plays such a huge role in long-term relationships. My partner and I disagree often on the details of past events. This has caused a lot of discord. Relationships! They makes us do crazy things. Levithan captures all the frustration and the strength of the love that keeps us coming back for more.

Library copy | January 4, 2011 | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 224 pages | ISBN 978-0374193683 | $18.00

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