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The organization of a group of things can sometimes tell you as much of a story as the actual things can (think of Rob in High Fidelity reorganizing his record collection), and David Levithan's new novel, The Lover's Dictionary, is trying to play with that as much as possible. He's organized the story as a dictionary, so the small vignettes and thoughts scatter themselves across the pages, revealing pieces of the relationship at the center of the story without regards to chronology or importance. Each page has a word at the top, and then anything from a word to two pages of definition, explanation, or storytelling. Like so:

catharsis, n.

I took it out on the wall.
I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU. YOU FUCKER, I LOVE YOU.

Sometimes they tell you something about one person or the other, sometimes they're about the relationship itself.

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've forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste again, and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on.

Reading it feels voyeuristic in a fun way, and these two people are so clearly sketched that they feel honest and whole, never hollow. They're not particularly likable, but that's refreshing. Because we only see these framed fragments of story, readers can recognize themselves easily in small moments (if they're looking). But as an experiment, it doesn't entirely work; the order is too designed to feel accidental. While we find out in the A's (with “arrears”) that she cheats on him, and future and past moments swing by each other as we move through the alphabet, the A's are heavy with beginnings and firsts (the very first word, “aberrant” is their first date), and entries sometimes wouldn't make sense in any other order. The writing goes from crisp to self-indulgent in a way that can be a letdown.

Regardless, Levithan deserves a lot of credit for turning what was probably a writing exercise (he mentions in the acknowledgements that an earlier version was sent to friends as a valentine) into a fresh-feeling little packet of words you can enjoy over a long lunch or an evening. He's going to be at Elliott Bay Book Company tomorrow at 7pm. Hearing him read would be a great way to spend a Saturday evening.