When authors play with the conventional format of a novel, it can either be a wonderful thing or a complete disaster. ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ by David Levithan is a book that has a rather inventive format as it tells a love story though in the form of a dictionary. Sounds odd, well bizarrely its not and it actually really works. In fact it’s this sort of novel that tries to be different, succeeds and makes a rewarding read and yet hasn’t been paid much attention. It is these sort of books that I want to be reading more of and writing more about on Savidge Reads.
How on earth could a dictionary of words tell a love story? Well the easiest answer I would have to that is to say ‘go and read David Levithan’s new novel The Lover’s Dictionary’. However as I should be hinting at why it’s worth doing that a single short sentence isn’t really a justifiable reason or incentive.
Levithan uses a selection of words, in alphabetical order of course, and then below the word in a sentence, a paragraph or a page or two long piece creates a moment or incident in the relationship that builds an image of a time in that relationship. Be it from ‘anthem’ to ‘kerfuffle’ or ‘leery’ to ‘yearning’ in each case clearly, simply and very effectively Levithan draws the reader into the most intimate and emotional moments of a couple’s journey. That last bit makes it sounds saccharine and its not, I don’t like saccharine novels, so it’s probably best I give you an example, my favourite of which was ‘buffoonery’ because it made me laugh, a lot.
You were drunk, and I made the mistake of mentioning Showgirls in a near-empty subway car. The pole had no idea what it was about to endure.
Though with alchoholism and adultery all lingering between the lines of this novel don’t go thinking it’s just a lovely story of love, there are the darker sides of it too. After closing the final page of ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’, which is a deceptively short novel to read, I actually felt like I had witnessed the development of a three year relationship from its very start to its very finish and with the highs and lows that come during that time period. Rather amazing then that this has happened without knowing either of the names of the two people who create that couple. In fact you are never even sure what the sex of the second person in that novel is, its left a mystery, the nameless narrator we only learn is male half way through, the lover however could be a man or a woman – you just know that this person is rather stunningly beautiful, because the narrator spends a lot of time obsessing over this and the insecurity it breeds in them.
This slightly insular edge the narrator has, seemingly caused by a slight inferiority complex is one that we have all had in relationships before I am sure. In fact it’s the slight feeling of empathy that Levithan creates with the nameless narrator which means you can put yourself slap bang in their place, and it’s occasionally a little uncomfortable. It’s this very real sensation that I liked so much about the book, love isn’t all flowers and joy, it can be hard work, and it can be heartbreaking. It has both the good sides and the not so. Levithan explores these two spectrums of feelings and all those that fall in the middle of them too. I loved how the book hit on those moments of random togetherness we can sometimes feel with someone, I haven’t seen it done so well in a book for quite some time.
“…because when it all comes down to it, there’s no such thing as a two-hit wonder. So its better just to have that one song everyone knows, instead of diluting it with a follow-up that only half succeeds. I mean, who really cares what Soft Cell’s next single was, as long as we have ‘Tainted Love’?”
I stop. You’re still listening.
“Wait”, I say. “What was I talking about? How did we get to ‘Tainted Love’?”
“Let’s see,” you say. “I believe we started roughly at the Democratic gains in the South, then jumped back to the election of 1948, dipping briefly into northern constructions of the South, vis-à-vis Steel Magnolias, Birth of a Nation, Johnny Cash, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Which landed you on To Kill A Mockingbird, and how it is both Southern and universal, which – correct me if I am wrong – got us to Harper Lee and her lack of a follow-up novel, intersected with the theory, probably wrong, that Truman Capote wrote the novel, then hopping over to literary one-hit wonders, and using musical one-hit wonders to make a point about their special place in our culture. I think.”
“Thank you,” I say. “That’s wonderful.”
As I mentioned above books that strive to do something different with fiction can go several ways. People can find them contrived, calculated, maybe a little niche and a little too gimmicky, or they can be the next best thing ever. I would put ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ somewhere in the middle. I did feel a little at the start like this was going to be one of those books you would only buy someone for valentines day which would then end up in the garbage a few months or years down the line. Well shame on me, because this is much more than that, it has a depth despite how succinct it is. Actually, as I think on it, it could be the succinct brief nature of ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ that makes it so compelling and hits the emotions home to the reader. I don’t want to call this book ground breaking or experimental, it’s just something that’s rather different and really works. 8/10
I haven’t read any of Levithan’s other work, I think he is much better known in the US than he is here, or am I wrong? Has anyone else read his work and what did you think? Has anyone else read this novel? What was the last novel you read that used an unusual format and did it work for you?