The Emberton Dictionary is headquartered in a century-old, limestone-and-steel skyscraper in the heart of an unnamed city’s downtown, and every part of the building is committed to the cause. On the sixth floor are the language harvesters, who monitor every type of media in search of noteworthy changes or additions. Seventh floor: the word definers. Ninth floor: etymology. Twelfth: senior editors. In the penthouse lives the dictionary’s mysterious namesake, and in the basement sits the building’s crown jewel: a dedicated printing press. “Emberton is a quality product,” declares Ms. Shillingsham, president of sales and marketing (fourth floor). “Not some flimsy paperback college dictionary.”
But in Peter Norman’s debut novel, all is not what it seems – and not just in the “Why isn’t this company bankrupt yet?” sense. Consider, for instance, the unusual circumstances surrounding the hire of its newest employee, Lance Blunt. A cryptic, unsolicited postcard, advertising a vacancy in the marketing department, brought him into the building, and Ms. Shillingsham makes it clear that the request “came from rather high up – from the upper floors of the Tower.” Lance’s other boss, Mr. Furlanetti, puts an even finer point on things. “We were told to hire you,” he says. “No choice.”
Adding to the strangeness of the situation is Lance’s biggest secret: he can’t read, and is terrified of being found out. So why has a dictionary, of all places, recruited him?
What follows is a thriller whose intrigue quickly envelops not just the dictionary and its staff, but also the very building in which they are both housed. The supposed printing press in the basement generates shock waves, at unpredictable intervals, that are felt throughout the entire tower. Inside its seemingly unshakeable foundations, meanwhile, “hairline cracks spread, stone corners eroded like edges of cake, pipes and rebar bent imperceptibly from true.”
With little work to do, the rest of the staff are content to hold endless go-nowhere meetings. But Lance, freed as much by his illiteracy – and therefore his lack of attachment to the written word – as he is by seeing the situation through fresh eyes, lives up to his last name’s promise by shoulder-checking office etiquette and asking questions that nobody else will. When rumours start to crop up about entire words disappearing from the dictionary, Lance finds himself heading up an investigation that his boss, the recluse in the penthouse, and even the building itself wants no part of.
Emberton has the makings of a fantastical, language-drunk genre book. Yet the execution leaves much to be desired. Norman, a poet and past finalist for Ontario’s Trillium Book Award, stumbles early on by emphasizing this job is the only hope his illiterate protagonist has of living a normal life. (He’s survived this long by staying under the wing of his recently deceased father and his furniture store.) Yet that’s a false dilemma, as well as a forced premise. Illiteracy is a major hurdle, to be sure, but it’s also a distressingly common one. An estimated 4 out of 10 Canadian adults have limited reading skills, and these people are not all shut-ins. So if Lance really wanted to escape scrutiny, why answer the first spooky postcard that lands in his mailbox? Why not get a job in construction instead?
The answer is that Lance was somehow compelled by the building itself. Indeed, Norman’s plot conveniently careens between the poles of technology and magic, leaving readers unsure by which laws this fictional world is actually governed. And too often the writing itself cannot rise to its author’s intentions. Undercooked sequences, like Lance’s job interview, are later acknowledged as intentionally stilted and unlikely – in that case, because it turns out the job was his, no matter what he said or did – but the scenes that follow do not improve accordingly. Characters are described as being “under the spell” of speeches that are no more seductive than the rest of the dialogue.
Late in the novel, Lance’s co-conspirator and love interest, a thinly drawn rogue etymologist named Elena, suspects that the building is now forcing the two of them to fall in love. She resists, telling him, “This isn’t how you and I would really end up together. Our story’s not this tacky. Is it?”
Not quite, no. But like much of the rest of the novel, pointing out that inexplicability doesn’t get you off the hook entirely. We still need a real reason to follow these two all the way into Emberton’s basement – something that runs a little deeper than “the hints of a figure under her workaday clothes.”
Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.