February 14, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
From "aberrant" to "zenith," David Levithan tells a love story in the form of dictionary definitions in his first adult novel, The Lover's Dictionary. At first, I was skeptical that the form's novelty would hold past the first third of the alphabet, but the book's refreshing non-linear structure combined with Levithan's eloquent, at times poetic, prose makes this novel an unforgettable (and relatable) read for anyone who has ever been in love.
The Guardian wrote of the book:
"Like all the good love stories, this one is both unique and universal: it's impossible not to nod along in recognition. For all the cutesiness of the form, it is a refreshingly grown-up story of a love affair between adults who should know better but haven't learned a damn thing. Levithan is a generous, warm-hearted writer, and his conceit feels original, a brave way of articulating the fictions we create for ourselves in relationships. It also allows for a nice slant on the absurdity of it all. Under "love, n?" he simply writes: "I'm not even going to try.""
Usually the musical reference points for my books aren't all that hard to figure out – they find their way, one way or another, into the books themselves. The whole notion of an "infinite playlist" was me taking the experience of jumping from song to song and realizing that it's not a bad way to live a life.
The Lover's Dictionary is a little different. There are a couple musical references (one is a non sequitur), but for the most part, the story of the relationship is told entirely on its own terms. Still, music informs the whole novel, because the structure I was looking to achieve stemmed from the structure of the best kinds of songs about love. The Lover's Dictionary is told (no surprise here) entirely though dictionary entries, with each word working as a catalyst for remembering a moment of the relationship. You get a good sense of the relationship (I hope), but the two lovers are a little harder to pin down. You know some things about them, but not everything. And this, deliberately, is modeled after a song about love. The best songs about love are ones that are both universal and specific – you understand what's going on in the song, but it's not so complete that you can't map out your own experience on top of it. When Bonnie Raitt sings "I can't make you love me if you don't" you have a sense of what she's been through, but you can't actually picture the person she's been through it with. It's more effective that way – what you get are the emotions, the truths, the clear mirror to look into. I wanted to see if a novel could do that, too.
The following songs were my role models, capturing love in all of its moods. I don't think the story of a relationship can ever be told in a linear, complete narrative. Instead, you put the pieces together. These songs all contain very significant pieces.
Death Cab for Cutie, "Transatlanticism"
I've listened to this song endless times, and I still can't tell you precisely what it's about, or what the characters within it are doing. I don't know their history. I don't know if it's over for them or if it's not. I don't know whether the longing of the singer is reciprocated from the other coast. But that doesn't matter. The longing is conveyed with such astonishing clarity that anyone who's ever missed someone will hang on to the refrain. "I want you so much closer" – a great reminder that sometimes the most simple, straightforward words are the ones with the most power.
Dar Williams, "February"
Somehow Dar Williams captures both the intensity of a relationship and the hollow feeling left after its dissolution. When she has the lover sing "I still love you," it is one of the most heartbreaking moments I can think of in a song. And then she has the courage to show that it doesn't matter –you can make that plea, but it's still too late. Words alone can't bend feelings. It says something about my romantic worldview that I don't fight this conclusion. It feels right.
Crowded House, "Fall At Your Feet"
I think it's rare for a song to capture actual intimacy within a relationship. There are plenty of songs about falling in love, but far fewer about what comes after. In The Lover's Dictionary, I wanted the couple to be at this stage – where the relationship has become about the push and pull, in the bedroom and out of it. When Neil Finn sings about "your slow-turning pain" – even though it's an unintentional echo, I can see the same spirit hovering over my fictional couple at a pivotal moment, when the narrator says, "We have fallen through the surface of want and are deep in the trenches of need." It's a treacherous, powerful, redemptive place for a couple to be, when these moments hit.
Aimee Mann, "Wise Up" and "Save Me"
Perhaps it's naïve of me, but I feel a lot of relationships hinge on one simple question: Can you change? On one or both sides, there's something that keeps getting in the way, something that needs to stop, and if some accommodation (if not outright change) doesn't happen, it's over. There are a number of Aimee Mann songs that could illustrate this, but I think the most potent pair is "Wise Up" and "Save Me". The first is told from the point of view of the interventionist, the one who needs the other one to change. The second is the cry for help from the one who's drowning. I imagine them as linked, even though they might not be. Navigating the gap between them is something the lovers in The Lover's Dictionary need to do, and like most couples, they find it very, very difficult.
Bloc Party, "I Still Remember"
I feel I have been hitting on the darker clouds instead of the bluer skies in this inspiration list, so let me introduce this song at this point. Because this has all the freshman rush of an early relationship – the dizzying what ifs, the giddy sensation of proximity, the intensity of being on the same side. There are very few relationships that don't have these pieces, because if they didn't start with this kind of excitement, they would have never gotten that far.
Ingrid Michaelson, "Are We There Yet?"
"They say that home is where the heart is/ I guess I haven't found my home" – not a promising start to a relationship within a song. But it gets much more complicated from there, because the question that titles the song is very much a question, and therein lies the beauty of this rather beautiful song. I love that there's no answer, and I wanted my novel to have that quality, too. I think I know what happens to the characters in The Lover's Dictionary, but I'm not sure if I'm right or not. Which, I think, is very accurate in terms of predicting how a relationship is going to go.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Hysteric"
I was deep in the throes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' It's Blitz album during the year of writing The Lover's Dictionary, so I will end with a song that was probably playing often as I was writing. To me, it's all in the way Karen O. sings the phrase "strange steps" – because aren't all relationships made of strange steps? In The Lover's Dictionary, I've taken the strange steps and shared them in a nonlinear way, but they're there. It's the strange steps that I was trying to illustrate in entries like the one for ephemeral:
I was coming back from the bathroom. You had just checked your email. I was walking to bed, but you intercepted me, kissed me, then clasped my left hand in your right hand and put your left hand on my back. We started slow-dancing. No music, just nighttime. You leaned your head into mine and I leaned my head into yours. Dancing cheek to cheek. Revolving slowly, eyes closed, heartbeat measure, nature's hum. It lasted the length of an old song, and then we stopped, kissed, and the world resumed.
Sometimes the strangeness is disturbing. Sometimes the strangeness is dazzling. And so, we keep stepping and stepping and stepping – until we either step away and leave, or we find the equilibrium we've been looking for.
David Levithan and The Lover's Dictionary links:
Barnes and Noble Review review
The Book Girl Reviews review
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star review
Frenetic Reader review
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review
Newcity Lit review
Pure Imagination review
The Rumpus review
Reclusive Bibliophile review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists