Almost-Lies, Not-Quite Fictions

Jessica Payn reviews Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary.
William Heinemann, £14.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

A pun might be thought of as a kind of oversaying. Eley Williams’ noticing that “what’s a sentence, really, if not time spent alone” makes a wry joke at the same time as it makes a prison of the gap between experience and expression. Grammar as incarceration, but loneliness, too: being trapped inside your own head. By Williams’ own definition, her writing deals in “over-think”, in narrators becoming “snagged in networks of over-association and dislocation”. Intricate tangles: lists, digressions, self-interrupting asides, moments held within their point of crisis (it is impossible to say just what I mean). Using language doubtfully, the speakers in her stories grab at the roots of words in wondering/wandering etymological swerves and knock against the walls of vocabulary’s echo chambers, sounding out rhymes, homophones, and, yes, puns: “UNHEIMLICH MANOEUVRES”. Over-think might be rephrased as a playful pulling at the semantic, an intense scrutiny of words and their “texture, taste, colour, odour, network, milieu, stance, poise, arch, crane, comfort, peak, trough”. A test, in short: “I test this word now between my teeth”. Can over-think unravel a word? Or does it just create more knots?

The Liar’s Dictionary, Williams’s début novel, is interested in the question of how a dictionary might be “an unreliable narrator”. It’s motivated by a desire to test language as well as truth. Williams herself never puns on lie, but her book takes a similar attitude to language as this high-stakes pun, which Christopher Ricks argues is “our most important” in English. This is because lie/lie tests the truth at the point at which not lying matters most. We lie down in bed: a site for love, dreams, procreation, sickness. We lie on our deathbeds and we lie in death (cf. Larkin’s lovers in ‘An Arundel Tomb’). Bringing these two possibilities into proximity, lie/lie troubles the relationship between language and fidelity, but “it neither endorses nor turns upside down; it tests”. The Liar’s Dictionary nimblyunsettles the boundary between fictional and legitimate entries: “All words are made up”, as Mallory, one of the novel’s two protagonists, points out. The novel neither endorses the dictionary’s status as an authority on language, nor completely upends that role. Itboth is and isn’t about liars, which makes it dishonest at the same time that it is supposed to be about, or for, those who deceive.

The narrative swings between two employees of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. In 1899, Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer with a fake speech impediment, has been given the task of researching the ‘S’ entries for the dictionary. A little over a century later, Mallory, a longstanding intern (it’s been five years) is digitising the incomplete Swansby’s for present-day readers. Swansby’s is a “dictionary of failures”, on several counts. Firstly, its project was cut short by the World War I: “swathes of the lexicographers who worked there were called up and killed before a single edition of the dictionary was printed”, and the original presses were melted down for munitions. Secondly, it has been subject to the discovery of an unnerving proliferation of “mountweazels” (or not-quite mountweazels, given that a mountweazel should be purposeful on the part of the publisher): “bogus entries cooked up and inserted into a dictionary or encyclopaedia as a means of protecting copyright”. David Swansby, the dictionary’s twenty-first century editor, reveals the presence of an unknown quantity of these falsehoods to Mallory, instructing her to hunt them down. Such delights as “cassiculation (n.), sensation of walking into spider silk, diaphanous unseen webs, etc.”, “larb (v.) to allot time to daydreaming”, and “widge-wodge (v.) informal – the alternating kneading of a cats paws upon wool, blankets, laps &c.” are among the discoveries, eventually revealed to be the handiwork of the disaffected Winceworth.

The existence of the mountweazels pushes at the distinction between a lie and a fiction: these are inauthentic words, but they “neatly [sum] up a sensation, quality or experience that had hitherto gone nameless”, one of the “pleasures” of a dictionary (in the words of the book’s preface, a slippery species of introduction to the novel that follows). A dictionary has no business being creative: each chapter in the book is named for a word in the liar’s alphabet, and “inventiveness” is the liar’s ‘i’. Still, Williams suggests that language exists unhappily under such rigidity, slyly pointing to the pliancy and whimsies of (real) words, from bletting to smeuse, and widdershins to corbicula, whose definitions, when pursued, read as their own micro-narratives.[1] She also includes a preface that performs a kind of gloss on the idea of a (actually, preposition uncertain: “a, the, whatever”) “perfect personal dictionary”. This gloss undermines our confidence in (or at least, tests) our ideas about what dictionaries are for:

Whether it should register or fix the language is often toted as a qualifier for dictionaries. Register, as if words are like so many delinquent children being herded together and counted in a room; fixed, as if only a certain number of children are allowed access to the room, and then the room is filled with cement.

The sincerity of this narratorial voice bears its own tricksy relationship with lying and truth. It does not straightforwardly lie, but dissembles, hiding its intent beneath overly breezy assertions: “In the perfect dictionary, it’s all correct and true. Incorrect definitions are as pointless as an unclear simile. As useless as a garbled preface, or an imprecise narrator.” The implication: such categories as “correctness”, “usefulness”, and “clarity” may not be the only categories that matter. As one of Williams’ protagonists in her story collection Attrib. (2017) quips, “The world’s yours for the mistaking” — implying there are gains to be made in blundering, or misunderstanding.

Winceworth’s fictions aren’t wholly fanciful, though: they capture something of the world he inhabits. Consider, for example, pretermissial (adj.) “the quality of being unbearable, particularly as pertains to silences”, or paracmasticon (n.), “one who seeks truth through guile in a time of crisis”. ‘Almost-lies’ might be an apt title for them, cousins to the mistake or the accident. They do not scheme to lead us astray: Winceworth refers to each instance of a mountweazel as “a lie without a victim”, which sits comfortably with Colin Burrows’ observation that “a key feature of truth… is that unlike a lie it doesn’t have overt designs on you”. Burrows links this insight to the absence of a truth verb in the English language: “we can talk about being lied to but we don’t talk about being truthed to”. If there is a motivation for Winceworth’s fabrications, it is the fantasy of authorship, driving at something fundamental about writing, invention, and language:

He could define parts of the world that only he could see or for which he felt responsible. He could be in control of a whole universe of new meanings. … Winceworth imagined his words and thoughts on every bookshelf up and down the country.

The Liar’s Dictionary takes evident delight in his coinages, and is littered with similar misalignments that don’t fully fit the lying label. Winceworth’s “concocted, affected and perfected” fake speech impediment, for instance, which is sustained into adulthood only by mishap:

Out of habit, however, and perhaps nervousness, Winceworth accidentally let a nethethary slip out during an interview for a minor proofreading role at Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The editor’s eyes had softened with an unmistakable sympathy. The lisp persisted and Winceworth gained meaningful employment.

Meanwhile, the bonafide liars within the book are few. Of course, Sophia (Un)Slivkovna, who befriends Winceworth at a party behind a potted plant, is not what she seems. And the voice on the phone, who regularly rings up Mallory with threats of a bomb in the building, is another deceiver. Yet the two protagonists, while they may come close to what they identify as lying, do not really fulfil its conditions. Mallory worries that “not being out” is a kind of deception, but this gets at a different sense of disconnect: the question of whether words, as defined by someone else, are reliable or helpful mediators in the negotiation of identity:

“What about a word for not being out?” Pip said. I turned.

“It’s not lying to not be out,” I said, slowly.

“I never called you a liar,” Pip said.

“I didn’t realise that a dictionary might be like reading a map or looking in a mirror”, Mallory admits elsewhere. “There, I learned a new syllabus and applied myself to it, or it to me”, except that the definitions are all off:

butch (v. transitive), now somewhat rare. To slaughter (an animal), to kill for market. Also: to cut up, to hack

dyke (n.), senses relating to a ditch or hollowed-out section

gay (v. intransitive), to be merry, cheerful, or light-hearted. Obsolete

lesbian rule (n.), a flexible (usually lead) ruler which can be bent to fit what is being measured

These definitions and redefinitions point up the meaning-making that happens outside of institutions, which puts the authority of a dictionary in doubt. Bias shapes which words get included, and there’s an unavoidable lag between a meaning circulating and its usage being defined or fixed. “What claims for truth did anyone really have?” Winceworth wonders. “What right to define a world?” Part of the subtle pressure that The Liar’s Dictionary applies to our understanding of language is to show the distance between the word and the world. The inadequacy of names: “‘To name a thing is to know a thing,’ Winceworth thinks to himself”, but how far does that knowing stretch? Winceworth’s name, deconstructed, can be taken as “startle dignity”, but also “Wince as in flinch… And worth as in ‘worse for wear’”. A riff on the idea of nominative determinism: a joke at a character’s chosen title that nonetheless tugs at our reference points.

The same difficulty, of trying to truly access something with language, is made more acute by the book’s preoccupation with colours. A colour exists for us only insofar as it has a name, and can only be explained insofar as it can be pointed to (oranges are orange, violets are blue). Williams shows Winceworth struggling memorably with the attempt to express the pigment of the explosion-patterned sky; her delicately bound compound adjectives and descriptive shape-making reach towards a new visual vocabulary that yet acknowledges, and makes play with, its own failure:

it was not a memory of the colour’s intensity nor its sudden blast across his vision that had him passing his hand across his face and loosening his tie: it was the colour itself that terrified him. It was entirely indescribable. It was not a single blast but one that somehow curdled and winched and seemed to him with a frequency. … It was a colour that made no sense. It seemed like red, milk-mild and lemon-brash and tangy on the eye, singing with white-hot curves and slick, abrasive purple licks.

The Liar’s Dictionary reaches its conclusion with a similar sense of beyondness. In one narrative, Mallory and her girlfriend Pip watch torched dictionary entries “dispersing on a breeze — words suspended and newly cooling as paper met ash met star met nothing, and quickly it all meant nothing at all in a quiet night sky”. In the other, Winceworth makes his out of the “dim passages to find the world beyond, its undefined futures, its waiting [SEE ALSO]s”. Shrinkage is set against the ineffable expanse of the possible. Characteristically nimble and rippling and alert to the uneasiness of “tying things up”, despite being a book about books that order and categorise, The Liar’s Dictionary lets its characters stray off the page at its close. The stuckness of over-think finally frays into the unending weave of new words and new meanings — both the pleasures and puzzles they might bring.


[1] Definitions as follows, according to the OED: bletting (n.) from blet (v.) “To become ‘sleepy’, as an over-ripe pear, a special form of decay to which fleshy fruits are subject”; smeuse (n.) “A hole in a hedge, wall, etc.”; widdershins (adv.) “In a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun (considered as unlucky or causing disaster)”; and corbicula (n.) “A part of the hinder leg of a bee adapted to carry pollen”, otherwise known as a “basket”.

About Jessica Payn

Jessica Payn is an editor, ghostwriter, and freelance critic based in London. She holds an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Literature from the University of Cambridge, where she wrote her thesis on the cuteness of Stevie Smith.