‘Emberton,’ by Peter Norman
If you peg yourself a word person, you probably can’t help but be at least a little obsessed with lexicography. There are editors in this world, and then there are dictionary editors – those tightly wound stewards of spelling, those doyennes of definitions – whose job it is to both preserve and grow (slowly, with only the most careful of consideration) the official vocabulary of our language. From James Murray’s Herculean efforts to bring the Oxford English Dictionary into existence, to those brainy young editors appearing in videos on the Merriam Webster website who make knowing the difference between effect and affect sound a bit sexy, there has always been something alluring – and a little lurid – about the business of where words come from.
Peter Norman, best known for two well-received collections of poetry, taps into the mystique of dictionary-making with his debut novel, Emberton. His tale takes us on a chthonic journey into the white-collar world of twenty-first century publishing – an environment that Kafka himself probably couldn’t have imagined.
Norman’s protagonist is Lance Blunt, a young furniture salesman who lands a job with the marketing department at the Emberton Dictionary despite his improbable hindrance of not being able to read. If the novel sounds like a satire on the (deteriorating) state of our literacy, it certainly starts out that way. There are a number of comic juxtapositions early on between Lance’s inability to even understand an email and the near monk-like dedication that the rest of the staff show in creating Emberton’s sacred text. Lance’s illiteracy is an interesting constraint on the plot, and it’s one that Norman handles well and with humour.
But things take a turn for the dark – not to mention supernatural – as the story progresses. Emberton Tower, the office building where the action is set, is like a world unto itself, existing almost outside of time and space. Indeed, Norman has created a place that would fit very well in a Tim Burton film: a dark, ancient edifice populated by shadowy figures and bizarre rituals, rattling pipes and old-fashion radiators.
As Lance is taken around on orientation by his aptly named boss Ms. Shillingham (though, despite her role as the head of marketing, she doesn’t spend much time shilling the Emberton dictionary), he learns about the Tower’s mysterious inner geography. It has, among other things, its own printing press in the basement, a geriatric contraption churning out copies of the dictionary. The building also has its own infirmary, cafeteria (fully staffed, though no one seems to eat there) and a penthouse where the reclusive company owner, Mr. Emberton, lives and works. As the story moves forward, we learn that there is a deep connection between Mr. Emberton and Lance’s family, and the mystery behind why Lance can’t read is intimately linked to Emberton Tower, a building that has become almost like a living organism.
Clearly this book is attempting to create its own surreal world, but there still needs to be rules and boundaries that fit the reality of that world. Unfortunately, Emberton falls down a number of times on this front. Early on, for example, Lance shows up for his job interview and checks in with lobby security, only to be allowed to wander up in the elevator on his own without having an escort sent down for him. Anyone who has worked in a white-collar office knows that this would never happen.
I struggled as well with the novel’s characterizations – of Ms. Shillingham, of Lance’s soon-to-be office rival Mr. Furlanetti, and even of his love interest, Elena. None seem to be fully formed flesh-and-blood people. They didn’t seem real, even within the surreal context of the story. There are also parts of the novel that are undone by sloppy writing. I found myself annoyed, for example, by Norman’s overuse of the word ‘rumble’ and its variants in the first 100 pages or so. This novel about a dictionary really could have benefited from a thesaurus.
Without giving too much away, Lance soon finds himself torn between his romantic allegiance to Elena and his almost-familial allegiance to Mr. Emberton. Elena, who is no longer employed at the dictionary but still lurks its hallways, is on the hunt to solve the mystery of what she refers to as the “withheld” words of the dictionary, and looks to conscript Lance to her cause. As she puts it to him:
I’m hoping … you can help me discover what happened to these words marked withhold. The other ones, the omit ones, they’re just like any other word that gets rejected from the dictionary … but the withhold words … those vanish. It’s like they never existed …
But Mr. Emberton has different plans for Lance – plans that involve the dark, magical liquids that flow through the nether regions of Emberton Tower, and the key they hold to both Lance’s illiteracy and the entire future of this revered dictionary. What’s at stake in this struggle? Language itself. “A world without language. Robbed of the greatest thing that humans had devised,” the novel tells us, somewhat didactically.
What we find is that Emberton shifts dramatically from a funny satire about words to a straight-up horror novel, and readers should prepare themselves for some grisly scenes involving chopped-up human body parts that feed the engine-like river that flows beneath Emberton Tower. These passages are not for the squeamish. But it is to Norman’s credit that he ends his novel on such a tense, white-knuckled note. As unbelievable as much of his story is, Norman manages to hold us by the throat all the way to a surprisingly satisfying finish.
Douglas & McIntyre | 256 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1553655541