EJ Levy’s new story collection, Love, In Theory, is a powerful array of contradictions: sensuous yet wry, bruising yet brainy, perfectly precise yet voluptuously messy. Her characters inhabit not-so-ivory towers of academia and hospital hallways; they chase after lovers they’re lucky to be rid of and fuck up happy homes; they laugh at themselves and they love without hope. Everyday actions—flirting with a salesman at a camping store, shaking hands with a partner’s co-worker—pitch them into moments of existential crisis that Levy describes in prose that fuses the muscular density of Mary Gaitskill’s best work with the sardonic buoyancy of Lorrie Moore.
Though not a linked collection in the traditional sense (no two stories share the same characters), these pieces coalesce around themes of desperation and desire. The characters are achingly aware of their own loneliness, and they try something—anything—to remedy it. Their efforts to wrestle out of their comfort zones allow Levy to deploy her sharpest—and most poignant—prose; the book is laced with lines that make you wince in recognition and stun you with their beauty.
In “Theory of Enlightenment,” a high-octane New York businesswoman follows her erstwhile lover to an ashram; despite the novelty of this premise, Levy grounds her observations in a hard-bitten wit that feels as lived-in as a much-loved party dress that’s been on too many strangers’ bedroom floors: “This is not a thing they feature in women’s magazines: How to Steal Your Boyfriend Back from God. So Renee has to turn to relatives, to friends, to strangers who lurk in adjacent cubicles. That morning, she confides in her coworker Alice … Over lunch, they talk sex, they talk self-esteem. They share rape stories and religious denominations. By that afternoon, Renee has agreed to help Alice find an apartment in Brooklyn.”
Renee’s quest to woo back the man “she has loved for so long it is if he is a part of her. A limb she cannot stand to lose” takes an unexpected route; like all of Levy’s characters, she’s forced to find peace in not getting what she wants but getting what she needs: “Renee considers the exquisite impermanence of it all, of her mother pulling the heads off begonias so they will flower and flower and flower, trying desperately to pass on their seed, and of Gil in the misty Catskills where the valleys are filled with pale vapor … and she knows that Gil is praying at this very moment, desperately, earnestly, as he once made love to Renee, when he still believed—as she does now—that feeling is a kind of knowledge and love an unregarded path to enlightenment.”
Levy’s stories are peopled with characters who have chosen lives of the mind, which makes these moments of raw emotion all the more powerful. In the first story, “The Best Way Not to Freeze,” a tightly-wound adjunct tries to mellow out and open up to a crunchy-groovy outdoorsman. This could’ve been a stale scenario, but Levy invigorates it by making her acerbic heroine’s desire to love and be loved like the heart of a hummingbird: so small and fierce and fast that she can hardly feel it move inside her.
Within a few brief pages, her arctic façade chips and splinters, and she changes from being “a scholar … her job [was] to see things in relationship to other things; the only thing she couldn’t see in a relationship was herself,” to someone who’s been gutted by love: “She heard him turn the lock and shove the key under the door, and then she stripped and stepped into the scalding tub, amazed that she could feel so much pain. Her skin was red beneath the water and felt like it might peel off, the way a green chili’s shiny skin will when you roast it over an open fire as he had shown her how to do.”
Passages like this make it easy to assume that there’s only one kind of character in Levy’s wheelhouse, but she’s just as potent with her lone blue-collar protagonist, the hospital orderly who tends to “The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota.” Though he’s a self-described “bruiser” (at least in build), she wisely refrains from making him sound like an archetypical townie and articulates his bemusement with three patients who share a very particular affliction—and his attraction to the young researcher who’s come to study them—in clean, economical prose that still packs a wallop:
“People argue about what distinguishes man from the lower animals now that we know that chimps can sign and elephants remember and dolphins think and chimpanzees kill for sport (I saw this on a National Geographic special the other night). Karen said that what makes us unique as a species is that we make art, but I think maybe we’re the only ones who pray and who wager, which, depending on how you look at it, maybe boils down to the same thing—faith in a power beyond our own, whether God or luck.”
Love is also a power beyond our own. Human beings have named the stars and photographed of the darkest parts of the deepest sea, but each of us can be undone by a single look. Theory is, in essence, a kind of faith. Love, In Theory is an often tender, sometimes ribald, and always affecting exploration of the ways we put that beautiful, improbable faith into action.