The Novelist’s Lexicon

The Novelist’s Lexicon, new in hardback from Columbia University Press, is an auspicious and at times bewildering project originating from an international literary conference hosted by Le Monde a few years ago. Over seventy authors from more than a dozen countries were asked to write about a “key word that opens the door to his work.” A list of just a few of the authors here is probably more than enough to pique interest: Rick Moody, Helene Cixous, Colum McCann, Jonathan Lethem, Adam Thirlwell, A.S. Byatt, David Peace, Dennis Cooper, and Annie Proulx all contribute pieces, mostly short, somewhere between 100 and 500 words. By nature, The Novelist’s Lexicon is a fragmentary affair, discontinuous, open to multiplicity, and unified only by its authors’ sense of craft, as well as an abiding intelligence.

Some authors take the project in earnest, like Lethem, whose piece “Furniture,” (which we excerpted late last year) pinpoints a fundamental yet largely unremarked upon element of novel-writing. French author Nicholas Fargues taps into etymology, offering a bit of advice in his piece “Novice”–

Don’t ‘make’ literature. Don’t write because that’s what people expect of you now that you’re a ‘writer.’ Don’t write for the beauty of the gesture or the love of art. Beware of fine phrases and well-turned maxims; that’s not your thing. Watch out for words that strike a pose. But do let your memory and your instincts flow; let the aptest words, the words that resemble you most closely, come of their own accord.

Anne Weber’s piece “Waiting/Attention” suggests that a key word — or any key, really — is an impossible dream–

It would be a word that encapsulated my aspirations and expectations, my sadness and my joy, my amazement at the quince’s hairy skin, the wash of the sky, and the delicate pattern of the cyclamen’s leaves. And since everything would be contained in this single, essential word, since it would express everything, I wouldn’t need to write anymore. And good riddance, too!

Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who goes with “Un-” also points to language’s simultaneous limitations and possibilities–

Un- as in never being satisfied with the language we have. Un- as in the realization of how difficult it is to communicate with people in a language you have invented yourself. Un- as in doubting whether you will ever succeed. Un- as in continuing to try even so. Un- as in suddenly launching yourself over a coffee table and transforming a dictionary into confetti.

Khemiri’s frustration with language (and paradoxical love) is thematic throughout Lexicon; we see it, for instance in David Peace’s “Plague.” Peace comes off like the crotchety old man in the group–

To be honest or stupid or both, but not churlish or contrary (I hope), I am uncertain I understand the premise of this lexicon. However, I am against the presumption of all premises and, equally, I am against all definitions and dictionaries, lexicons and lists, which, in their commodification and exclusivity, are the preserve and the territory of fascists and shoppers.

After this radical caveat, including the claim that he is under “duress” (did the folks at Le Monde put guns to these authors’ heads?), Peace goes on to discuss the word “plague,” tracing it through Western lit and showing how it evinces in his novel Occupied City (which we reviewed here, by the way).

Perhaps Peace should’ve just ignored the assignment, like Dennis Cooper, whose piece is “Signed D.C.” is simply a work of microfiction, imagining what would happen if Olive Oyl and Popeye who “peel like decals from the TV and live in the world.” The story is a clever, short five paragraphs, and ends with at least a trace of insight into Cooper’s writing process: “I am heavier than my constructions understand.” Maybe he didn’t ignore the assignment.

Cooper is not the only writer to let fiction reign — there are poems and meditations and strange riffs here, largely divorced of discussion from technique or craft. In any case, those interested in getting into the heads of some of the 21st century’s most prominent (and skillful) writers will wish to take notice of The Novelist’s Lexicon, a fun and repeatedly rewarding book. Recommended.

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