David Levithan’s Argot of Arousal,
A review by Darryl Whetter
The Lover’s Dictionary
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Mary Shelley and her progeny know that novels need more than just bone, muscle and skin; they also require that elusive spark of life. David Levithan’s interesting but patchy novel The Lover’s Dictionary definitely isn’t another atrophied non-story du jour. In places, the skin of prose also glows with ruddy life. Its familiar but relevant romantic trajectory gives it a strong, able skeleton with cheekbones of infatuation, flirting hands and a breadth of shoulder willing to take the weight of romantic cohabitation. Despite these strengths, however, the novel’s dictionary structure leaves the body of this story unfinished, as if constructed during fitful labour shortages. Between the islands of gleaming flesh, too much glaring white bone is left exposed to the air.
Successful gimmick novels have to transcend their gimmicks. At its best, The Lover’s Dictionary is more than a clever, alphabetical repackaging of love’s joys and doubts. Less chronologically-obsessed than Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow(a story told backwards) or Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (which invites you to read the chapters in any order) and more self-generated than Diane Schoemperlen’s In the Language of Love (a novel of 100 chapters composed from the 1910 Kent-Rosanoff Word Association Test), Levithan’s Dictionary recognizes that all relationships bend language into a private vernacular. Along with Levithan’s young urban, heterosexual couple, all lovers share an argot of arousal and a jargon of private jokes. Eventually, though, lovers also speak in the dialect of resentment and co-dependence.
The Lover’s Dictionary opens with a novel’s requisite doses of emotional honesty, things at stake and desire-driven characters. Levithan hits the ground running with two young lovers assuring each other they normally “don’t do this kind of thing.” No sooner has each made this breathy false claim than the (male) narrator confesses:
Later it turned out we had both met people online before, and we had both slept with people on first dates before, and we had both found ourselves falling too fast before. But we comforted ourselves with what we really meant to say, which was: ‘I don’t normally feel this good about what I’m doing.’
Yes. Yes. Yes. Thing is, this opening is also the first entry in a novel structured as a dictionary (the entry for aberrant). Brief entries on abstain, abstraction, and abyss follow across an ensuing tundra of white space.
When it works, the novel argues for its own brevity. The character-rich entry for antsy simply reads, “I swore I would never take you to the opera again.” Part romantic autopsy and part slimming program, The Lover’s Dictionary reminds us that relationships are often perceived and remembered through details and small examples. Domestically knowing, Levithan can find the romantically universal in the daily particulars. When the man [they’re unnamed: grr!] requests that she change her brand of antiperspirant, we see the early warning signs of romantic morbidity. She confesses, “Let the record show, I have stepped onto the slippery slope of compromise … Someday you’ll ask me to give up something I really love, and then it’s going to get ugly.”
Character (always the main focus of a novel) doesn’t suffer mortally through this brief, teleportational structure, but it’s also not fully served. We do learn plenty across entries that can be as brief as single lines. The chilling reverberate simply asks, “Why did your father leave?” They are indeed in a kerfuffle with “From now on, you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties. One. Preferably a beer.” The spiral motion with which the novel revisits an infidelity of hers is both true to the emotional recurrences of a long-term relationship yet also too constrained by the brief, abecedarian structure. We hear about his reaction, but we don’t see it in memorable action. Longer scenes of action, not diary-like reactions, would better clarify why (or at least how) she steps out in this novel in which a two-page chapter is long.
The compromised focus of this ADD love story isn’t helped by making the first-person narrator yet another (American) male writer character. Like almost all the characters in Keith Gessen’s skeweringly entitled All the Sad Young Literary Men, Levithan’s tender male lover always has notebook or laptop at hand. The combination of a logophilic narrator with a logophilic structure favours the narrator over his female lover and doubly exposes the novel’s gratuitous entries. A novel that’s willing to give us gold describing banal as a “spirit-death” or the post-coital afterglow “when there was still heat and mostly breathing, when there was still touch and mostly thought” shouldn’t stoop to the lesser metals of word gags like anachronism, with its flat joke about “the horse and buggy.” However briefly, there is a genuine story here, and more should have been done to give it the complexity Levithan is poised to deliver instead of leaving any residual traces of what can occasionally seem like a Valentine’s Day marketing campaign.
Until The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan has been a YA author (he’s the co-author of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist). The emotional courage, nose for drama and keen ear exhibited here all reveal a mature novelist waiting to emerge. Ultimately the same dictionary gimmick that will earn this novel tweets and sound-bytes of attention provides extra emphasis on a first-novel more notable for the promise it shows than the actual product.
Thank you for this incisive review. I loved your line, “Between the islands of gleaming flesh, too much glaring white bone is left exposed to the air” in relationship to the challenges of the novel’s structure. I appreciate, too, that you mention techniques in which Levithan tries to compensate and account for these very structural limitations. I feel like I’ve read the book.
A very fair-handed review of a book that I look forward to reading. I always enjoy a review that reveals the energy and attention that its reviewer has paid to both what the book is and what the book strives to be. I appreciate Darryl’s generosity towards the book’s goals and successes, as well as his reasonable anxiety over the limitations of the dictionary premise. Like Mary, I feel like I’ve read the book.