Mountweazel (n.) a fake entry deliberately inserted into a dictionary or work of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.
It is the final year of the nineteenth century and Peter Winceworth has reached the letter ‘S’, toiling away for the much-anticipated Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He is increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to coral language and regiment facts. Compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, Winceworth begins inserting fictitious entries into the dictionary.
In the present day, young intern Mallory is tasked with uncovering the mountweazels as the text of the dictionary is digitised. Through the fake words, she finds she has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires. More pressingly, she must also field daily threatening phone calls. Is a suggested change to the definition of marriage (n.) really so controversial? And does the caller really intend for the Swansby’s staff to ‘burn in hell’?
As their two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory must discover how to negotiate the complexities of an often nonsensical, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn and undefineable life.
The Liars Dictionary explores the themes of trust and creativity, and celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language. It is an exhilarating debut novel from a formidably brilliant young writer.
The Liars Dictionary is a playful novel about the irony of language – even when presented with a literal encyclopaedia of words, self expression remains just out of reach. Told through two socially uncomfortable narrators – Peter Winceworth in the 19th century and half-closeted intern Mallory in the present day – Eley Williams explores the undefinable bulk of human experience.
I tend to stay away from self consciously ‘bookish’ reads – anything set in a book shop, books about authors (one rung below movies about Hollywood on the ladder of annoying things no one really needs), etc – so I worry that others out there like me might be put off when I say that The Liars Dictionary is a book that delights in nerding out about words. Please don’t be. This is no literary Once Upon a Time In Hollywood – it’s a story about expressing yourself, and the often woeful inadequacy of language in the face of that task. It’s about how we’re compelled to try anyway, even holding the weight of a history filled with devastating communication failures – small and large.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews grouping Eley Williams with writers like Ali Smith and George Saunders and while I think both are fair comparisons – and I love Saunders and I like Smith in certain doses –there is a self concious whimsy to their writing that I didn’t feel during The Liars Dictionary, to its benefit. There is something about the closely observed portrayal of the discomfort that both Winceworth and Mallory feel about themselves that kept the novel grounded, even in its most playful moments.
I love books that play out across different timelines, and in The Liars Dictionary, Williams does it to delightful effect. As you’ll gather from the summary above, the bulk of Mallory’s work for her internship digitising the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary has become seeking out and removing mountweazels – fake words inserted into the dictionary by its creators. Mountweazels are actually a real thing, and much like the paper towns used by cartographers (and beloved by the likes of Margo Roth Speigelman), they are inserted as copyright markers – so if an Oxford English fake word suddenly shows up, for example, in the Merriam Webster, you know some copying has taken place. However, it turns out in Swansby’s, there is not just one mountweazel but many peppered throughout, words like Relectoblivious (adj.), accidentally rereading a phrase or line due to lack of focus or desire to finish; Prognostisumption (n.), belief, as made by glimpsing aspects of something from a distance; and Agrupt (adj.), irritation caused by having a denouement ruined. Mallory must seek out and remove the markers of this invented language, even as she wonders at the stories of the person who created it.
We don’t have to wonder. The novel slips seamlessly back to the 19th century where we get to see, in real time, the experiences and events that would lead Peter to invent those words. We feel with him the indefinable experiences he seeks to give language too – all experiences he is too afraid to say out loud and so hides them instead in the pages of the encyclopaedic dictionary he and a legion of other lexicographers have dedicated their professional lives to. I should mention here another unique aspect of the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is that it never got finished. There were too many words.
The Liars Dictionary grapples with expression and definition in an utterly unique fashion, exploring language in all its limits and invention to captivating effect. It’s a quietly hopeful book, equal parts silly (I mean, an uncomfortable guy is literally called Winceworth) and profound.