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288 pages, Hardcover
First published July 16, 2020
This loading hourglass, though. A further pair of pixels was suspended in the centre of the graphic to imply that sand was falling - as one watched the screen, this hourglass would swivel on its axis as if tipped and re-tipped by an unseen moderator's fingers. Everybody knows this. Why am I explaining hourglasses to myself? Proximity to encyclopaedic dictionaries made me a bore.
In his review of the book in the LRB, Michael Hofmann called Attrib. the work of an “Alphabetophile”; these love letters to language are certainly that, but they are also the work of someone who dearly likes people too. Williams is a fantastic noticer, and she writes about how words and letters connect to people and objects. So many of these seventeen stories are small wondrous things, shots of linguistic pleasure that take moments of everyday life and fashion something marvellous from them.
”Endings have a certain loaded horror for me — and this isn’t too much of a spoiler as things will change — I couldn’t think of a way to end that piece, so the central building in the novel just explodes for very little reason whatsoever, as that seemed final or the beginning of another story.”
Liar: n. One who lies; a person who knowingly utters falsehood; one who deceives by false report or representation. See the reviews on the book jacket; e.g., "hilarious, smart charming...intoxicated with joy...perfectly crafted...a glorious novel." Liar's Dictionary is none of these. It's not funny or joyful. The main characters are miserable throughout. Regarding craft:I should have realized all of this when reading the entirely pointless preface.
Dictionary: n. A reference work containing an alphabetical list of words, with information given for each word, usually including meaning, pronunciation, and etymology. In short, a work where each word has meaning, but the whole tells no story, has no narrative purpose. Liar's Dictionary in a nutshell. Lots of words to no purpose. What story there is is a series of odd vignettes that lead nowhere interesting.
“I need to talk to you about mountweazels.”
“Mountweazels,” I repeated.
“There are mistakes. In the dictionary,” he said. There seemed to be a sob edging the softness of his voice. I stared at him. He assumed a defensive tone. “Well. Not mistakes. Notquite mistakes. They’re words that are meant to be there but not meant to be there.”
“Mountweazels,” I repeated again.
“Other dictionaries have them! Most!” David Swansby said. “They’re made-up words.”
“All words are made up,” I said.
“That is true,” David Swansby replied, “and also not a useful contribution.”
Winceworth slipped the blue index cards into the deck on his desk. His mouth was dry. A private rebellion, a lie without a victim — what claims for truth did anyone really have? What right to define a world? Some trace of his thoughts surviving him was not so bad a thing. He would live for ever.
As well as answering calls, it was my job to check the spelling and punctuation of David’s updated words. This was laborious because David hated technology. Also, he had scrimped on buying office equipment. To use a computer in Swansby House was to hate the sight of an hourglass. The one on my computer’s loading screen was silent, monochrome and smaller than a fingernail, six black pixels in its top bulb and ten in the lower. I wondered how many months of people’s lives had been spent staring at this pinch-waisted little graphic popped up in the centre of this desktop. It made me think of the different tidemarks on the keyboard I inherited. Not quite grey, not quite black, not quite brown. Of what: skin? Grime? The word slough came to mind. The word sebum. The record of previous hands resting on this very same piece of plastic. Some of them might have died and this little scuff mark could be the only trace of them left on this earth. In short: this keyboard made me feel a little sick.
He wondered whether anyone would miss him if he just stayed put amongst the weeds, kicking the clocks of dandelions until facelessness and spending the afternoon not amongst paper and letters and words but instead here, head to and in and of the clouds counting birds until the numbers ran out. There were funny, oily little wild birds in the park, some of which he recognised. Starlings with feathers star-spangled and glittersome. One brave bird hopped about his feet for cake crumbs while still more were flitting above his head with the dandelion seeds, blown wishes finding a smeuse in the air. The best benchside exoticisms January could offer were all on show — the starling, the dandelion, the blown seeds and the birds skeining against the grey clouds, hazing it and mazing it, a featherlight kaleidoscope noon-damp and knowing the sky was never truly grey, just filled with a thousand years of birds’paths, and wishful seeds, a bird-seed sky as something meddled and ripe and wish-hot, the breeze bird-breath soft like a — what — heart stopped in a lobby above one’s lungs as well it might, as might it will — seeds take a shape too soft to be called a burr, like falling asleep on a bench with the sun on your face, seeds in a shape too soft to be called a globe, too breakable to be a constellation, too tough to not be worth wishing upon, the crowd of birds, a unheard murmuration (pl. n.) not led by one bird but a cloud-folly of seeds, blasted by one of countless breaths escaping from blasted wished-upon clock as a breath, providing a clockwork with no regard to time nor hands, flocking with no purpose other than the clotting and thrilling and thrumming, a flock as gathered ellipses rather than lines of wing and bone and beak, falling asleep grey-headed rather than young and dazzling — more puff than flower — collecting the ellipses of empty speech bubbles, the words never said or sayable, former pauses in speech as busy as leaderless birds, twisting, blown apart softly, to warm and colour even the widest of skies.