At first glance, Levithan’s new novel looks like one of those twee, gimmicky books sold in bookstores next to the cashier. Its cute cover and text-light format doesn’t summon comparisons to thick-book writers like Jonathan Franzen.
But the compelling tale of a doomed relationship told as a dictionary, one word and its definition per page, pushes novelistic boundaries. More impressively, Levithan takes a hoary narrative—sexual electricity, domesticity, familiarity, tensions, betrayal—and recasts it in a fresh, modern way.
The first person narrative is so intimate as to make the reader feel voyeuristic, like reading the diary of a logophile stranger. Entries echo the roller coaster of love, by turns wry, insecure, funny, coy, poetical, philosophical, bitter and even mawkishly sentimental.
The characters are nameless and genderless; their relationship is obliquely drawn; the reader has to connect the dots. The story is told in alphabetical, not chronological, order; time is constantly shifting (“wane” comes before “woo”). Levithan can pack an entire scene into a few sentences: “buffoonery, n. You were drunk, and I made the mistake of mentioning Showgirls in a near-empty subway car. That pole had no idea of what it was about to endure.” His characterization is equally deft: “autonomy, n. ‘I want my books to have my own shelves,’ you said, and that’s how I knew it would be okay to live together.” The narrator is too sophisticated to refer directly to infidelity. But it’s in the air by “D”: “dispel, v. It was the way you said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ I could feel the magic drain from the room.”
Until “zenith,” the relationship unspools in snippets, the shortest being “celibacy, n., n/a.” The most perplexing, oddly, is “love, n., I’m not going to even try.” Is the character signalling defeat? Is the author being lazy? Or does it reinforce the novel’s theme that “love” is more poignantly expressed in every other word? This tiny book inspires a lot of big questions.