Defining Heartbreak – The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

Last year, my bookish friends and I went out of town. Being the bookish lot that we are, we brought books with us that we could read while on the road, if we are not too busy relaying random stories to each other. I brought a Hemingway novel, which is not a very smart choice because I now realize that books for traveling should only be light (literally and metaphorically).

Anyway, my friends were passing around this novel-dictionary, and my curiosity was piqued when I saw that it really was a novel-dictionary. Flip through the pages and you’ll see dictionary entries of words selected by the unnamed narrator to tell the story of his relationship. I don’t think that Levithan is the progenitor of this form only because I think nothing can be original these days, but it was refreshing to see such a novel.

Here’s a sample entry:

love, n.

I’m not going to even try.

And then the rest of the page is just plain space. With this, one can surmise that the novel is not linear. It would have been too contrived if the entries, alphabetically arranged as expected, give us a straightforward story. So we have episodes of the narrator’s ups and downs with his lover, who cheats, who has family issues, and who is often drunk.

At one page, they are happy. The other one, they just finished a fight. And then the next, the memory of their first meeting surfaces. They met online, and this is why this novel got me. Being socially inept, at least in the sphere of dating, I can only rely on looking for dates online. If you ask me, it’s actually a very convenient way in these modern times. It’s like ordering a product online, and similar to that, the product that is shipped to you isn’t always what it seems to be like in the product description.

Perhaps this is why the couple in this novel had a lot to weather. The image that they formed of each other while getting to know each other, most likely through chats and emails, undevelops when the flesh and blood version behind the avatars are put vis-à-vis. Hence, the relearning/unlearning process.

Okay, I am not really trying to write something about this book just like the narrator not trying to define love. This is a novel composed of micro-stories. The mention of Hemingway at the start reminds me of the arguably shortest story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. Here, there are a lot of those (the love entry is also six words if we accept the contraction and disregard the title/header). There are also musings on the different phases of love, but I’d like to focus on this one entry that I saved on a text file and sat undisturbed for a long time on my thumb drive.

community, n.

You feel like you’re getting to know all the people on the dating site. It’s the same faces over and over again. You can leave for a year and then come back, and they’re all waiting for you. Same screennames with the same photos looking for the same things. Only the age has changed, mechanically adjusted as if it’s the only thing that’s passing. If you’ve gone on bad dates, they’re still there. If you’ve gone on good dates that eventually didn’t work out, they’re still there. You cancel your subscription. You sign back up. You think this time will be different.

It’s demoralizing and intriguing and sometimes sexy and mostly boring. It’s what you do late at night, when your brain has given up on all the other things it has to do–relationship porn. You scroll through. How genius to call them thumbnails, because what part of the body tells us less? (And yet, this is how I find you.)

Every now and then it would happen: I would see someone from the site on the subway or on the street, or in a bar. A fellow member of the community, but in the real world. I’d want to say, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” And I’d want to say, “Don’t I know you from nowhere?” But ultimately I wouldn’t say a word. I wasn’t sure I wanted them to be real.

This entry makes me feel that the couple could be male lovers because I rarely hear of straight guys looking for online dates and I know a lot of gay guys who are forever logged on to dating sites. Why do we even think that the characters are male and female? It’s been a long while since I read this, but is there a mention that the other person is a she? You see, the narrator is mostly talking/writing to the partner, so the pronoun used is the ambiguous “you.” If there are any proofs that this is a boy-girl relationship, please let me know, but also please understand that I won’t be editing this.

More on this community thing, I wrote something about it and I submitted it to a blog contest. You can find it here. Huge chunks of this have been edited out to meet the required word count, and if you are interested, go ahead and visit it. I want to think that the community entry spurred my writing of it, but it has been inside my head for some time.

3 star - liked itBack to the novel (and I feel like I’m personifying the novel with all the digression and gushing and the plain lack of coherence in this post), I found myself wanting more. One could zoom through this book, which could loosely substitute for a book of quotes, but I guess one has to stare at the wide open spaces after each dictionary entry to feel the pinch of heartbreak.

Writing about love is never an easy task, much more define it. It will take a lifetime, that’s why I felt that this dictionary did not suffice. I was actually torn between liking it and loving it, but since I find it hard to be attached to short reads, I’ll settle for liking it.

But the like is strong enough for me to blabber about it under no direction. Thanks to Tina for lending me her copy. Her hardbound edition was widely circulated within our book club.

9 thoughts on “Defining Heartbreak – The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

  1. this doesn’t look like a three-star review. it was pretty convincing that you loved it. haha! maybe it was the ‘personalizing’. anyway, ym fave entry is LIVID. :) great rev, chami!

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