As I said when I participated in my first “blog tour” for Ron Rash’s The Cove (review here), I usually decline invitations to join these things. But sometimes a book comes along and you have to say yes. It happened again. Welcome to the final day of the blog tour for E.J. Levy’s debut short story collection Love, In Theory (2012). I love a good collection of short stories, but that’s not what made me interested in this book. Rather, this collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction this year. It’s an award I need to get to know better, and this book has given credence to my suspicions that these folks know what they’re doing.
I was further anxious to read these stories when I saw where they were initially published: The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Mid-American Review, The Missouri Review, and The North American Review, all publications which foster the art of the short story. Why, one I was really excited about, “The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota” was published in The Chicago Tribune; whether The Chicago Tribune fosters the art of the short story, I don’t know, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
But as much as I was interested in the book, I was also wary. The title suggests abstract intellectualization, the potential that these stories would be put through a thematic ringer. I guess it’s that word theory, a word that may be most responsible for getting me out of academia, as much as I enjoy literary and aesthetic theory. And some of the titles of the stories (other than the one that hearkens beautifully to one of my favorite books of this year or ever, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (which will be the subject of our third podcast . . . ) (review here)) also didn’t pull me in: “Theory of Enlightenment,” “My Life in Theory,” “Theory of Transportation,” “Gravity,” “Theory of the Leisure Class,” and “Theory of Dramatic Action.” I was worried the theme would direct the writing. Well, maybe it did, but it worked very well. The emotion, the atmosphere, the nuance: it all comes out stronger than any abstract, overarching theme.
Naturally, each story revolves around some kind of love, whether it be young love, old love, heterosexual love, homosexual love, family love, even love for God (which is set up as a kind of competition). Again, let me be clear: these stories are unique, stand-alone stories, each holding its own power. I don’t want to suggest Levy went off to write about every form of love under the sun. Each story feels individual and intimate, as if they began with the real emotion and experience and not with a desire to, say, now write a story about motherly love.
And direct. I wasn’t expecting Levy’s style to be so clear and direct, again due to her indirect titles. But look at the first line from the initial story, “The Best Way Not to Freeze,” which is told from a rather cold and distant third-person perspective which closely follows the woman:
They met in a camping store, where he was working as a clerk and she had come to rent a pair of climbing shoes.
Levy avoids the meandering sentence and also avoids the unnecessarily concrete, not giving us their names for a few pages. She gives us what she needs to introduce a rather mundane, typical encounter at a store. This encounter doesn’t even immediately result in anything; the two characters go their own way. The central character is the woman, a PhD who knows an awful lot about theory but cannot figure out how to love or be loved. Her “relationships ended as they began, cordially, in corridors and seminar rooms, on e-mail, collegially. Without hard feelings, or soft.” This particular love affair does begin to bloom, and, I have to say, as direct and mundane as some of this story is, my mouth dried up a couple of times due to the emotion Levy manages to portray as we see this relationship fall apart at the very moment each seems to be attempting to shore it up. I know that’s not a particularly original concept, but so what? It’s not the concept. It’s how Levy writes through it, and I attribute a lot of the success to her clear and direct way at presenting what on the surface appears to be mundane, all while letting us feel the torrents blazing underneath it all.
Even as the perspective changes from third- to first-person, this direct, controlled style comes through. For example, in “The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota,” the narrator is one of the hospital staff. He’s the muscle who tries to keep the patients in line. The hospital has three men who each believes himself to be Jesus Christ. As Rokeach did, a senior doctor has decided to put the three men together, hoping they will see their delusion and walk away cured. As this is going on, our narrator falls in love with Karen, one of the doctors involved in treating the three Christs. Usually staff and medical don’t mix, but he and Karen do. The three Christs seem to be breaking down all sorts of barriers. Faith and reason, as aspects of love, go against each other in this sad story.
It’s a strong collection, and I hope Levy continues to treat us to her short stories. I don’t even care if all of them are about love and theory.