In this enthralling debut collection, winner of the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, E. J. Levy delves into the well-trod territory of modern love, in all its indecisiveness and heartbreak. Levy’s fiction and essays have received numerous honors such as the Pushcart Prize and Nelson Algren Award, as well as the Lambda Literary Award for her anthology, Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers. Her memoir, Amazons: A Love Story, was recently published by University of Missouri Press. Love, In Theory showcases some of her best fiction, as the stories collected here first appeared in the Paris Review, the Missouri Review, and the Gettysburg Review, to name a few.
The majority of Levy’s Love, In Theory cast hails from academia and other brainy occupations, which immediately put me on guard when I opened the book. I’m wary of the preponderance of academics populating fiction these days—with so many writers working at universities, the humanities-professor/graduate-student-in-love story strikes me as all too easy, hardly a stretch of the imagination. Yet I found myself quickly and pleasantly surprised. Levy cleverly constructs her tales as “scholarly theories” from various disciplines (“Theory of the Leisure Class”; “Theory of Transportation,” etc). As such, form and content are linked in a meaningful, intended way, the stories at times delightfully caustic in their self-awareness.
What makes these stories stand out is the depth and range of Levy’s perspective. Throughout Love, In Theory, her voice is convincing, her sentences pithy, poignant, and humorous in rendering her characters’ struggles. “They offered yoga, they offered meditation, they offered people the chance to throw themselves off cliffs,” Levy states in the “The Best Way Not to Freeze.” The opening story, one of the most emotionally harrowing, follows an adjunct composition instructor who signs up for a rappelling class and falls in love with a sporting goods salesman, only to have him leave her: “This was not where she’d expected to be at thirty-three, alone, clinging to a sheer rock face where nothing grew, with nothing to hold on to, just shallow handholds, cold and dark, just narrow ledges.”
Perhaps the plight Levy captures most deftly is that of the woman in her early thirties. Whether her female protagonist is reeling from a romance with a woman or a man or sometimes both (as in “Theory of Dramatic Action” and “My Life in Theory”), Levy illuminates the particular strains of this life stage for the educated, liberated woman. Childbearing is not the crisis here, but aloneness. Consider this passage from “The Best Way Not to Freeze”:
When she arrived at Coffman Union, a sporty twenty-year-old handed her a waiver to sign, with which she promised to hold no one but herself responsible for her injury or death. It asked for her next of kin, a question that depressed her. It was humiliating to write her mother’s or father’s name. She would have to admit they were her parents after all, since the adjacent blank requested Relationship to You. Instead she named a brother, whose phone number she could not now recall. She made one up. It broke her heart. She was thirty-three and her closest kin were just that, kin.
And this exchange from “Theory of Enlightenment,” in which Renee’s partner Gil has left her to join an ashram, and she journeys to get him back:
That night Renee calls her mother in Arizona and cries. Her mother listens. Speaks calmly. Says it has to feel really bad to separate from someone you’ve spent a lot of time with over the last several years.
“Spend a lot of time with? We were married for all intents and purposes. We bought Revere Ware. An OED.”
In these and other passages, Levy is a master of the well-placed, telling detail, as well as the art of the sentence fragment to subtly build tension.
For the characters depicted in Love, In Theory, the constant pursuit of greater happiness heightens the isolation of contemporary life as they wrestle with love’s changeability. Sometimes Levy’s protagonists are the perpetrators of unfaithfulness, as they shuck off comfortable relationships in pursuit of the new. In “My Life in Theory,” a philosopher cheats on her longtime girlfriend with a mutual friend. The narrator, so fixated on figuring out the ethics of the situation, has forgotten the obvious, “the simple fact that I might hurt the woman I loved.” Throughout the collection, metaphors and thematic passages arise out of the character’s own language and field of study, in this case, philosophy. By story’s end, all three individuals have gone their separate ways, the narrator left recalling a passage about Zeno lecturing in Athens—“that change, as Zeno would have it, is illusory.”
Inventive structural devices abound, heightening the thematic resonance and interplay within the collection. “Theory of Dramatic Action,” for instance, is segmented into Acts I, II, and III; “Theory of the Leisure Class” is told in seven subtitled sections, such as “Conspicuous Leisure,” “Forms of Sacrifice,” “Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interests,” etc. Levy is also fond of aphorisms, a fitting rhetorical device for scholarly types wrestling with love. “I have observed that if you give a man a mystery you will end up with one of two things—a cop or a philosopher,” states the narrator in “The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota.” “Because one kind of man will look for someone to blame, he’ll try to find a culprit to punish until everything is under control again; the other kind of man will marvel at what he hasn’t seen before.”
Levy’s characters suffer in love but not in vain, for they marvel at the uncertainties and paradoxes of modern love and invite us to do so with them. As the narrator in “Theory of Transportation” observes,
We do not know how to live our lives anymore, if we ever did. We paste them together from scraps, odd bits. We fake love affairs. Develop routines. Go into therapy. Visit the zendo, the ashram. Adopt Japanese religions and French literary theories. We borrow, we beg, we steal. We miss the point. We long for it.
Vanessa Blakeslee's fiction and essays have appeared in the Southern Review, the Paris Review Daily, and Kenyon Review Online, among elsewhere. She recently completed a novel. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.
Love, In Theory
University of Georgia Press, 2012
$24.95 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-8203-4349-5