Tuesday, March 26, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 22

Hayley Esther on E. J. Levy's LOVE, IN THEORY

I know the author of Love, In Theory as Professor Levy, the slightly intimidating, blazer-and-jeans wearing woman who stood confidently at the front of our classroom in Middlebush and told us that we would be writing essays that semester, and that "essay" meant, quite literally, just to try.

It was my junior year in college at the University of Missouri-Columbia and I decided to be gutsy and take Levy's creative writing class, my first in my three years as an English major. It was called "History of the Personal Essay," and we began with Montaigne and ended with David Foster Wallace, reading theory and writing our own pieces as we went along.

To put it mildly, it was a fabulous class. It was the kind of rare classroom experience that shakes you out of your comfort zone but simultaneously makes you more comfortable with yourself, and by extension, with your writing. Good or bad, Levy found a way to address our wide range of ability levels, whether we were journalism students, creative writing students, or completely inexperienced writers like myself. She told us to look at the essayists we were reading and apply aspects of their work to our own essays: the creativity of Eula Biss, the lyricism of Lia Purpura, the emotion of Cheryl Strayed.

Although Levy's essays and fiction deserve to be read alongside these "greats," she never gave us any of her work during our class, and I never sought it out until Love, In Theory was serendipitously placed in front of me when I came to work at the University of Georgia Press. I took home a copy on my first day and found Levy's stories to be exactly what I expected: detailed, precise, intelligent, and overflowing with the kind of wit and insight that made me want to underline every other sentence on the page.

For instance, the opening line of "Theory of Enlightenment": "Ever since her lover left her for an ashram in the Catskills, Renee Kirschbaum has been picking fights with strangers." This blunt, detail-packed sentence hooked me. And, throughout the story, Renee never disappoints. Her character constantly delivers sarcastic one-liners that made me want to laugh and cry. The philosophical protagonist of "My Life in Theory" created a similar response in me with her abundance of analytical and intellectual tendencies and observations. The realness of these characters and the carefulness with which Levy constructs them keeps me reaching for her collection again and again.

While I am no critic, and though I may be slightly biased, I agree with the countless number of positive reviews of Love, In Theory. Levy's stories are remarkable, and they are highly deserving of the Flannery O'Connor distinction. Levy does everything right—details, characters, language, form—while still managing to surprise and enlighten the reader. In essence, Levy accomplishes everything that she taught us to look for and pushed us to try in our personal essay class.

Hayley Esther is currently a marketing intern at the University of Georgia Press and a graduate student at the University of Georgia. She will graduate in May 2014 with a Master of Arts in English.