OCTOBER 18, 2020
THE SURFACE OF Eley Williams’s writing, as readers of her short story collection Attrib. will already be aware, is one of lexical delight. The animating principle is the skittish, bumble-beeing motion of her navigation across sentences and phrases, which cross-pollinate one another sonically. Sentences are often musically connected, built on harmony or the felicity of anagram; her development is the stand-up’s callback as much as any linear drive. There’s a generosity to the writing’s willingness to pretend it’s the reader who is being clever by remembering something that has been placed firmly in their hand the whole time.
Pleasure is foregrounded in the preface, too — a riff of sorts on the “ideal dictionary” (dictionaries being the order of the day, in terms of the plot, more on which anon). New words provide a “moment of solidarity and recognition. (Someone else must have had the same sensation as me — I’m not alone!).” This un-aloneness is also crucial to Williams’s style, always to a lesser or greater extent about, and in itself an act of, love. There is warmth and brio directed toward the words — they are accomplices and fellow travelers — but as much as language is the stage on which Williams performs her balletic maneuvers, it has an answering pressure of its own.
There is a perfectly well-constructed plot here, but it almost feels beneath a book of this charm, energy, and syncopation to dwell too ploddingly on it. For all its brilliant set pieces and neat engineering, it is the means rather than the source of the joy to be found. One comes to Williams for sentences that ricochet and dazzle: “A bookish bullring with the acoustics of a basilica.” The novel could be twice as long again, operating as it does as an exercise in voice; it isn’t damning, I hope, nor faint praise to say this is a book that is more or less all aside, and all the better for it.
That said, it is a further example of Williams’s ability to interweave, to nod backward and forward, that she can also maintain a through-line, giving her characters — and, as importantly, their vocabulary — a sense of motion, a rounding-off of event. The facts are these: a dual time frame, one in 1899, the turn of a century (one of many thresholds), the other in the present day; one in the witty and infinitely patient third person, the other in the touchier, more scared, more frustrated first; both taking place at Swansby’s Dictionary, a heroic failure of a white elephant of a reference source, famous if at all for its incompleteness and its having got there too late to count for much beyond the effort. The historical lexicographer is Peter Winceworth, a timid and put-upon type whose initial approach to language is neither the narrator’s nor the book’s own: “Language is something you accept or trust rather than necessarily want to test out.” Our modern-day hero is Mallory, an in some ways even more put-upon type, the sole employee — aside from her comically tall boss, the inheritor of the Swansby name and folly — whose daily routine is punctuated by the fielding of hateful crank calls and the furtive consumption of hard-boiled eggs.
The connections between the two narratives operate on both the grand and small scale, and they are never less than perfectly calibrated — especially those which are almost throwaway, such as some of Winceworth’s discovered false definitions, or “mountweazels,” which Mallory has to weed out before the dictionary can be digitized. This method of plotting sees Williams at her best and most playful: it emerges that Winceworth has snuck in a fake word for briefly daydreaming, named after the object of his clumsy affection, Sophia, and also invents a term for the guilt felt by one who falsifies a speech impediment. The extended linguistic game is played across several courts simultaneously: Mallory’s own name has its bad luck built into it, while Winceworth — the man whose life is most burdened by pinning, often with some force, language and, in one hilariously memorable case, a pelican to the ground — falls for someone who declares, “Names after all, little peschka, should not matter so much.”
What becomes clear is that, for both the characters and Williams, paying close attention is the highest form of duty and affection one can embody. After Mallory’s regular caller levels a bomb threat and a scene plays out at the fire assembly point outside — involving a dog’s leavings and a choc ice wrapper — Mallory says, “I thought, maybe this is what I was put on earth to do. I was never going to be brave, or proud but I know about timings and small interventions.” Likewise, Winceworth, in one of his forlorn attempts to woo the married Sophia, says,
I cannot sing and I cannot be handsome, but I can perhaps charm you with made-up etymologies. A fascination with the particulars rather than the general, that’s my talent. This tendency to drift off and fascinate with small details, the transformative power of proper attention paid to small things.
This “transformative power” is a lot like love, in the end — as is Winceworth’s later desire to commit to memory the details of a tearoom in which he sits with Sophia, precisely because she has been there. While the mastering of small details and the commitment of them to the pages of a dictionary may be possible with enough research, patience, and ill-starred train journeys to Barking, what isn’t possible is to keep language fixed for any amount of time. Ultimately, Winceworth’s efforts are demonstrated to be the cupping of hands around water, and Mallory’s angry caller is the ugliest side of language’s impermanence, ringing out from the frustrated, obsolete side of history. The reason for the calls are the redefinition, by Swansby’s, of “marriage” — a word that no longer necessitates the presence of one man and one woman — and the emotional core of Mallory’s narrative is her own redefinition of the implications of this evolution. In a committed relationship with a doughty woman named Pip, Mallory isn’t out at work, or anywhere else, and — for all of her delighted word games and aleatory holidays among the alphabet’s murkiest corners — is stifled when it comes to this most important public utterance.
We come to see that, for Mallory and Winceworth, the dictionary and its ability to police and codify, to open rabbit holes and false trails, is both net and shield, preventing the wilder, less controllable keening that both possess. Sophia chides Winceworth for his various repressions but, ultimately, finds a way to break him out of Swansby’s. Yet it is Mallory herself who, over the course of the narrative, travels the furthest. Her partner comes to represent a terrifying truism for a wrangler of definitions — “Pip was often a person of actions. Action is often better than words” — and through Pip’s kindness and example Mallory, at her own crisis point, sees the “important facts” for what they are, and in an affecting shift is able to say:
The change happened when I watched Pip dust herself off and tell me she was fine. Some new feeling flooded in. I don’t know if I had ever hoped before like that, indiscriminately.
The truth of it is: here’s to tying things up, and to change, and to hell with neatnesses.
It becomes clear to both protagonists that the important things are never neat, or on schedule, but not whether it’s worse if “someone anonymous is out there and wants to hurt you in particular, or that your hurt is something by-the-by, easily folded into some grander, spurious project.” What both are able to do is to move beyond the urge to tame fear by making everything “just so,” rather than learning to dwell in — as Williams memorably puts it — “the world beyond, its undefined futures, its waiting [SEE ALSO]s.” Williams’s trick is to draw the eye to small things by giving “made-up etymologies” and “proper attention,” her raptness as all-encompassing as the first flushes of a new crush. For a novel as finely tuned as this, to leave one with a sense of the intoxicating hopefulness of chance is its greatest achievement in a competitive field.