Review by Amanda Mead
October 29, 2012
Author E.J. Levy navigates the topography of intellectual love to an often times troubled affect in the 2012 fiction collection Love, In Theory. Flannery O’Conner award winner for short fiction, these ten stories measure betrayal, passion, and heartbreak against scholarly “theories” that illuminate what it means to be in a relationship in the information age.
The majority of Levy’s characters are academics: a professor of creative writing at a small town university, a graduate film student relocating from Colorado to Ohio, and a self-proclaimed philosopher who suggests that love is a “messer-upper.” Despite a deft acquisition of book smarts, these characters are stumped when it comes to love. If there are ways to explain the physics behind string theory, or constants and variables in a mathematic equation, then what makes deconstructing our most intimate relationships an exception?
The notion that ignorance is bliss is applicable here, as Levy’s characters seek out the one variable that justifies a number of unresolved hindrances in their daily, emotive, lives. This erudition results in an acute introspection and self-rendering of situations far too dramatic and predictable for their own good. Characters over-calculate the essential points of growth: surpassing vulnerability and inhibition; allowing what we feel to override the way we think.
Infidelity and betrayal are a predominant undertone in Love, as in “Rat Choice,” where a young woman named Lisa is witness to her father’s affair and the resulting decay of her parents marriage; in “My Life in Theory,” a lesbian couple works through a break up as a result of “bi-curious” cheating. The collection shifts through “the residue” of post-breakup resentment as lives are slowly and seemingly pieced together in a more logical approach. In the end, Levy frees her characters from rationality and regret, who instead become “stupid with hope” in an attempt at moving on.
Levy’s writing is at once dry, cerebral, and humorous. Puns and wit drive the often overly sentimental and disillusioned antidote. Love, In Theory successfully evokes empathy from readers with palpably relatable moments reminding us that relationship rifts are both smitten and ubiquitous. For instance, a college professor named Lisa is dumped by her boyfriend for an “undergraduate who smells like avocados.” Lisa’s heartbreak becomes all the more visceral we listen to the hollow, “toothy sound” of her friend eating rice cakes on the other end of the phone line. In “Theory of Enlightenment”, a woman is left by her lover for an Ashram in the Catskills; instead of meditation, Renee picks fights with strangers in the Laundromat and runs headfirst into the middle of traffic. “‘Sorry’, she said, recovering herself and patting the snout of the car. ‘I’m a little premenstrual.’” Rather than lessening the heartbreak, Levy splices the page with a colloquial ache that neither the reader nor the character can avoid.
In contrast, the collection nods to inherent generalities including non-descript settings of small, unnamed university towns and an abundance of female protagonists who grapple with the book’s theme of distinguishing applied knowledge from the wayward heart. While some of her narrators are more green and others weathered, Levy embraces her canon, hugging dangerously close to the more obvious – and deeply embedded – stereotypes of women and romance.
“Gravity” and “The Three Christ’s of Moose Lake, Minnesota” are the only stories told by a male narrator, published side by side in the middle of the collection. In “The Three Christ’s of Moose Lake Minnesota”, the voice of a Midwestern blue-collar male deviates from its neighboring stories, whose protagonists are, for the most part, young women in their 20’s. The narration in “Minnesota” reads feigned; what is intended to read as an undereducated Midwest male is poorly simulated, too calculated in the context of Levy’s other stories. Perhaps this setting, the dialogue, and protagonist will find themselves more comfortable outside Love; if so, I suggest reading “The Three Christ’s of Moose Lake Minnesota” on its own. (fyi: the story can be read in the archives of the Chicago Tribune).
In the end, the collection does more than satisfy a pop fetish for break ups and affairs. Love, In Theory is an analysis of parent-child relationships, of friends, of extended family. In “Small Bright Thing,” a half-Korean girl challenges her mother’s obsession with Oriental rugs as a bulkhead between their mother-daughter relationship, while “Theory of Transportation” is a reflection of old dance partners, one slowly dying while the other is “dumped” for religion. ”Theory of the Leisure Class” follows an older, established couple in Costa Rica as they compromise after years of marriage – following the chapter format of Thorstein Veblen’s socio-economic treatise and critique of conspicuous consumption.
Levy writes “The whole point of an education” is to “help you take the world personally”. In Love, In Theory, intellect and education can both protect and harm a relationship, a buffer against intimacy with another human being. While I recommend educating yourself on the contents of this book, maybe it is best to not know all the answers – to risk detaching our minds from the unstudied heart.
Amanda Mead is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is an active contributor to Sixty Inches from Center, an online archive of the Chicago art scene. She graduated from Beloit College with a joint degree in Creative Writing and Art History.