The protagonists in the nine stories that make up E.J. Levy’s Love, In Theory (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction) are almost all highly educated, the sort of people who quote Adorno to themselves during times of stress, who attend Umberto Eco readings, who, in a moment of crisis, recall that “panic… was named for the god of wilderness.” Like their literary forebears (think Anders in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” or Hulga in O’Connor’s “Good Country People”), they sport intellectual armor that both protects and confines them.
In one story, a character claims that “the whole point of an education” is to “help you take the world personally.” But these characters use their educations to create a distance between themselves and their experiences, a buffer against desire and loss. The protagonist of “Gravity,” a doctor, says that he learned when operating on cadavers in medical school that “[s]ometimes it was necessary to turn things into other things in order to go on.” All of Levy’s characters seem practiced at this trick. One, a creative writing instructor, finds her boyfriend’s confession of infidelity “hard to believe. Like a bad plot twist in one of her student’s stories, his phrases had seemed hackneyed, overdone.” Another, an adjunct philosophy professor, redirects her thoughts about the possibility of a romantic reunion into a meditation on Zeno’s paradox, the arrow that never arrives at its destination. The final story, narrated in second person, puts it most plainly: “You love these people from a distance, which is how you prefer to love.”
Levy’s characters – adjunct professors, assistant editors, gay dancers – would seem at home in a Laurie Colwin collection, though these stories are more anguished than Colwin’s, struggling with a new, information-saturated century. “We do not know how to live our lives anymore,” one says:
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.
Levy’s characters often suffer from a kind of academic tunnel vision, which, combined with their Midwestern reticence, reminded me of the characters in another recent winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize, Lori Ostlund’s The Bigness of the World. Like Ostlund, Levy brings a deadpan humor to her descriptions of her sober-minded characters. One remembers the night when her boyfriend told her that he was leaving her to join an ashram:
… he told her that he didn’t want to come back, that his highest aspiration in life was to die for good and stay dead. ‘I didn’t know you were so unhappy,’ she had said. ‘I’m not,’ he’d smiled.
Another, considering whether to accept an offer of coffee from a man she’s just met, thinks that he is “not an attractive man, not by a long shot, but she feels a certain kinship that might approximate attraction in a pinch.”
Stories about the overeducated are common. What separates these stories from others in the “scholars with problems” vein is the way they avoid an overly simplistic rejection of theory. Levy’s stories, whose titles include “Theory of Dramatic Action,” “Theory of Enlightenment,” and “Theory of the Leisure Class,” treat theory playfully. Levy invites her characters to move beyond shapes of thought that have lost their usefulness, but more in a spirit more of dialectic than repudiation. In “Rat Choice,” for example, the protagonist, when confronting her ex-boyfriend with his new girlfriend, reflects that “the books [she] loves avoid” such (melo)dramatic scenes, but she is “tired of avoiding things.” The suggestion is that this character will continue to love those books, but at the same time is taking a step into new territory, one that abandons the protections offered by structures and rules.
There’s a sense of hope here that gets stronger as the collection progresses. The narrator of “Rat Choice,” which comes midway through the collection, attends an Umberto Eco reading and notes an Eco character’s statement that hell is “not unremitting despair but unending, useless hope.” Theories of all stripes do not tend to be big on hope. But, as Levy clearly knows, without hope we have no stories. This collection’s best moments are those when characters allow themselves to be, as one calls it, “stupid with hope.” In the final story, for instance, the narrator lets herself consider that “perhaps the inherited forms of love need not apply to the two of you, as the structure of dramatic action fails to fit your life.” The story ends on a note of possibility, the possibility that the narrator with her partner can “invent some other form of love, something tender and spacious at one time.” The movement, within individual stories and the collection as a whole, is not away from “theory” but rather away from the misuse of theory as shield or fortress. It’s a movement toward other people, toward “a more complete sense of the world,” as one character says. Toward “the feeling that comes when you release yourself toward things”; this, the stories suggest, is what’s entailed by “taking the world personally.”