I have wanted to read Eley Willams’ debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, in my local library.
The Liar’s Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is ‘toiling away’, and has reached the letter ‘S’. He is feeling somewhat threatened by his colleagues, who are intent only upon the ‘regiment facts’, and decides to insert a series of mountweazels, completely fictitious words, into the dictionary.
Such mountweazels are often used to prevent copyright infringement, but Winceworth finds them fascinating, and begins to invent slews of his own; ‘fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often that not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no word in current circulation seemed to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing poetical about a disappointing novel – susposset (n.)… [to] larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.’
The present story takes place in the same physical office building which Winceworth once worked within. Here, we follow a young intern named Mallory, who is, in fact, the only member of staff in the office, aside from David Swansby, a relative of the original dictionary creator. Her job is to locate all of the mountweazels in the text, and remove them for the revised edition. As she finds more and more invented words, she ‘has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires.’ She is entirely forbidden from adding modern words into the dictionary, too. Mallory’s narrative begins in a manner which amused and intrigued me: ‘David spoke to me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.’
Mallory and Winceworth are both fully-formed and fascinating. Winceworth decided, in childhood, to cultivate a lisp, which his mother found ‘endearing’ and his father ‘ridiculous’; this has followed him into his adult life. Mallory is complex, coming to terms with her life, and nervous about whether she should reveal the existence of her girlfriend, Pip, to her boss.
I thoroughly enjoyed the observations which Williams made throughout the novel; David Swansby, for instance, ‘looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved.’ As Mallory begins to learn of Winceworth’s story, she reflects: ‘The more I thought about it at work, the more I liked the close-but-unreachable sound of 1900 and its neologisms, the words that entered mouths and ears and inkwells that year. Teabag, come-hither, razzmatazz. 1900 sounds like a lot more fun than 1899, and its note-taking lexicographers.’
The novel’s preface muses about what makes the ‘perfect dictionary’, which would, of course, be tailored to the individual reader. It comments that ‘a dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting’. I found this section relatively humorous, and felt that it nicely paved the way for the two stories to unfold. I very much liked the structural approach which Williams took, too; The Liar’s Dictionary follows the patterns and directives of a real dictionary: it ranges from the chapter heading ‘A is for artful (adj.)’ to ‘Y is for yes (exclam.)’.
Williams’ novel ‘celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language’, and she does this so well. It is clear that the author gets such joy from wordplay, and this was one of my favourite elements throughout the entire novel. There are moments of real brilliance here, and a lot of curious observances to be found. The Liar’s Dictionary is a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and playful read, which I had so much fun with.