I I don’t know if any of the fictional previews that appeared in the newspapers at the end of 2016 tipped Eley Williams’ debut collection, Attribute. and other stories, published by the independent press Influx, as a book to watch. But 12 months later, it was all in the end-of-year roundups – a deserved success that sparked off pure puns, as Williams’ restless, philosophically-inclined narrators focus on the nuances of language past.
The success of Attribute. had readers eagerly awaiting this first novel, and it does not disappoint. A virtuoso performance full of charm, it follows two lexicographers 100 years apart – Mallory, who tells in the present tense, and Winceworth, shown in 1899. Both work for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a lesser known rival of reference works most illustrious, and an eccentric labor of love nurtured by generations of the Swansby family.
Mallory, whose previous job ‘paid £1.50 less per hour and involved standing by a treadmill and spinning unfrosted gingerbread 30 degrees’, is an intern in her twenties, brought in to digitize the dictionary, which turns out to be strewn with made-up words. Her eccentric boss, David, puts her in charge of investigating the mistakes. There’s another mystery: Someone is calling the Bureau issuing bomb threats because the dictionary is changing its 1899 definition of marriage from “union between man and woman” to “between… persons.”
Williams cuts between Mallory and Winceworth in alphabetical chapters named after various mountweazels (the made-up words inserted into dictionaries to protect their intellectual property). Winceworth’s very name seems to suggest his intense clumsiness. After faking a lisp to gain sympathy, he is forced to maintain the charade of attending elocution lessons ordered by his boss. His segments of the novel concern his longing for a woman who has already spoken, encountered at a shindig clubland held to raise money for the fledgling dictionary.
There’s great skill in how the novel stays compact and focused while delivering multi-level satisfaction. It’s part love story, part office comedy, part detective mystery, and part gaslit late Victorian slice. As Mallory’s girlfriend Pip, or “roommate” as she describes her in public, shifts from cameo to central player as the mystery unfolds, the tender portrayal of a same-sex relationship built on a shared penchant for etymological nonsense recalls the first stories. of Ali Smith, whose intellectually curious and free spirit Williams shares. And if it is far from being laborious, the novel underlines the difficulty of getting by as a graduate in London.
There are slight frictions around the topic of Mallory’s desire to keep her sexuality private. When she thinks back to the stealthy thrill of flipping through a school dictionary looking for words about genitals, or when she and Pip discover Monique Wittig’s lesbian feminism, or when Winceworth’s frustrations with her romantic disappointment and hatred of his colleagues turn into professional malice, Williams keeps in sight big questions about language and identity. But as in Attribute., there is nothing dry in these surveys; it is a humorous novel. Williams writes with good comedic timing, in glistening prose of treats. Mallory tells us: “Some words are made for speculative onomatopoeia. Did I spell onomatopoeia correctly the first time you type from college? Did I fuck. onomatopy is an onomatopoeia to mindlessly but hopefully crush your hands on a keyboard.
Throughout, we feel in the safe hands of a storyteller who devotes his talent to our pleasure. The Liar’s Dictionary is a glorious novel – a perfectly crafted investigation into our ability to define words and their power to define us.