This was my first exposure to either Cohn or Levithan, aside from seeing the film version Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (without, I’m ashamed to say, even knowing it was based on a novel). But it’s their third collaboration, in which the authors write alternating chapters, “without planning anything out beforehand. That’s the way they work,” according to the “about the authors” page. I can’t take that completely at face value; I don’t believe even seasoned authors would create a coherent, publishable book without either some advance planning or a lot of clean-up and restructuring, or more likely both. But given that as a starting point, it was hard for me not to look for the flaws you might expect in such a book: a bit of aimlessness, or some mildly lazy page-burning tricks, like describing a locale beloved by the author, or including favorite quotes from other works. And you might think the authors would deliberately keep many elements of character and setting nebulous, the better to respond to evolving demands from the plot.
You’ll find those traits if you search them out, but in the end it didn’t bother me, because if Cohn and Levithan are perhaps feeling their way through the book a little bit, Dash and Lily are decidedly feeling their way through what kind of relationship they will (or won’t have). Lily and Dash pass coy autobiographical tidbits and a series of “dares” back and forth through the medium of a Moleskine notebook deposited in New York’s storied bookstore The Strand, so their descriptions of things important to them arises very organically. And while it’s not a particularly deep book, it doesn’t shy away from the issue of the difference between how Dash and Lily “really” are and how they present themselves to each other, which alleviates the sense that Cohn and Levithan are flirting with each other through the medium of the novel. Also, if plot wanders a bit, that doesn’t mean some of the prose isn’t sharply focused. I particularly liked this description:
She led me into a room that could only be called a parlor. The drapery was so thick and the furniture so cloaked that I half expected to find Sherlock Holmes thumb-wrestling with Jane Austen in the corner. It wasn’t as dusty or smoky as one expects a parlor to be, but all the wood had the weight of card catalogs and the furniture seemed soaked in wine.
Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares also pushed a lot of my personal buttons. I met my wife through a long meandering correspondence, and any courtship scenario with a pen-pal-ish element has extra emotional heft for me. Meanwhile, The Strand has enjoyed a legendary status in my head since those days before the Internet, when hard-to-find books and records scarcely seemed to exist outside the shelves on which you found them. But even without those elements necessarily being present, I enjoyed this enough to seek out Cohn and Levithan’s other collaborations.
needs more demons? no. And a special thanks to my excellent friend Janet for alerting me to this book.