Likely Stories : The Liar's Dictionary, by Eley Williams

Mar 18, 2021

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Eley Williams is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  She is the author of Attrib. and Other Stories.  Her work has appeared in The Penguin book of Contemporary British Short StoriesThe Liar’s Dictionary is her first novel.  She lives in London.

 


Eley begins, “I had been on this internship for three years.  On my first day, I was given a rundown of the company’s history on my tour of the building.  I was shown the portraits of the initial sub-editors and funders who had vied to keep the business going both before and after the wars.  It all began with Prof. Gerolf Swansby, a wealthy man who seemed to attract unctuous funding for his lexicographical enterprise.  By the late nineteenth century, he had accumulated enough for building works to commence at an address overlooking St. James’s Park.  The property was built for purpose, and for its time was state-of-the-art, designated by architect Basil Slade and fitted with features such as a telephone, electric lift and […] master clock which used electrical impulses to ensure that all clocks in the building kept uniform time.  Prof. Gerolf Swansby named the building after himself” (16).  

The young intern was tasked with keeping track of “colleagues attempting to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, and begins inserting unauthorized, fictitious entry into the dictionary” (jacket).  She writes, “You may know the expression weasel words—deliberately ambiguous statements used in order to mislead, performing a little bait and switch of language.  I think about weasel words whenever I hear the phrase state-of-the-art.  Which art, and what state?  For example, ‘my office has state-of-the-art air conditioning’ as a phrase does not specify that disrepair is technically a ‘state’ and the art in question might refer to ‘weird humming from a box above your head that drips rigid yellow sap into the printer every two weeks” (18-19).

Winceworth had concocted a fake speech impediment, however, he was found out.  Eley writes, “The lisp became a more pressing issue when Winceworth’s job at Swansby’s focused on the letter S. Day in, day out he shuffled powder-blue index cards covered with S-led words across his desk, headwords and lemmas all sibilance and precise hissing.  […] At an interview, the editor “explained, gently, that rather than a Christmas bonus this year Winceworth would be enrolled in a series of classes with one of the premier elocutionists in Europe” (28) […] “After their first meeting Winceworth had been sent home with instructions to repeat Silly Susan sitting on the seashore stringing seashells and seaweeds, softly singing or listening in silence to the sirens’ song” (33).

This hilarious story, chock full of British witticisms, will keep readers of The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams laughing all the live long day!  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

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