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Why ‘dictionaries’ make good novels

In an episode of “The Simpsons,” Steven Wright tells this joke: “I finally got around to reading the dictionary. Turns out the zebra did it.” Lisa, of course, has to explain the joke to Homer: “Dad, the zebra didn’t do it, it’s just a word at the end of the dictionary.”

But even Homer didn’t need Lisa to explain to him the underlying premise: Nobody reads the dictionary cover to cover. (With a few exceptions: spelling bee contenders, maybe, or the hundred-plus celebrities, such as Kim Cattrall and Terry Gilliam, who chose “the dictionary” as their desert-island book for the BBC program “Desert Island Discs.”)

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Some fiction writers, however, have turned that Simpsons joke on its head. Instead of trying to read the dictionary like a novel, they’ve written novels that borrow their structure from dictionaries--and that offer more drama than whether they’ll end with zythum (a kind of ancient Egyptian beer).

The most recent is David Levithan’s “The Lover’s Dictionary,” published earlier this year. This is not a whodunit--or a romance--in the traditional sense. Told in alphabetical, rather than chronological order, “The Lover’s Dictionary” co-opts the structure of the dictionary to define the arc of a relationship in an obliquely satisfying way. We see the boy-meets-girl story through a series of porthole-like entries, such as autonomy: “’I want my books to have their own shelves,’ you said, and that’s how I knew it would be okay to live together,” and flagrant: “I would be standing right there, and you would walk out of the bathroom without putting the cap back on the toothpaste.”

As befits a book with the word dictionary in the title, some of Levithan’s entries are linguistic as well as narrative. After an evening of experimental theater, one character tells another that avant-garde translates as “favor to your friends.” At doldrums, we read that “The proper verb for depression is sink,” and the entire entry for raze is “It sounded like you were lifting me, but it all fell.”

“The Lover’s Dictionary” is not the first work of abecedarian fiction; two other notable examples of dictionary-as-narrative are Han Shaogong’s 1995 novel “A Dictionary of Maqiao” (published in English translation in 2003), and Milorad Pavic’s “Dictionary of the Khazars” (published in 1984 in Serbian, with an English translation in 1988).

“A Dictionary of Maqiao” is based on Han Shaogong’s own experience in in 1970, as an “educated youth” sent to the countryside after the Cultural Revolution. Maqiao, a village in Hunan, and its dialect are real, but the entries in “A Dictionary of Maqiao” are more like vignettes than definitions. They describe the hard life of Chinese peasants--albeit with frequent digressions into language issues, such as the relative lack of terms in Maqiao for sexual experiences, especially compared to the number of words for cooking methods.

The Khazars of Pavic’s “Dictionary,” meanwhile, are a real people, too. But the culture Pavic describes in his long, encyclopedic entries is wholly invented, and often fanciful. One entry, for a kind of fruit known as ku, says that it “sometimes releases voices that sound like a chaffinch.”

Unlike the dictionary itself, these books make very successful novels. “A Dictionary of Maqiao” and “Dictionary of the Khazars” were both well received, winning prizes in China and the former Yugoslavia, respectively. And they succeed not merely because of the technical chops necessary to pull off what Robert Coover, reviewing “Dictionary of the Khazars” for The New York Times, called a “chronologically disturbed” narrative. It’s because using the structure of the dictionary lends a certain heft to the proceedings.

A book structured like a dictionary is authoritative, without any question of an unreliable narrator--what is more reliable than a reference book? The bold headwords, the parts of speech, the biographical birth and death dates: They all say “trust me, believe me,” and we do, even when we know we’re reading a work of fiction. We are primed to respond trustingly to fiction wearing the dictionary’s clothes, for the same reason we enjoy mockumentaries--the tropes of the genre are so strong that they flavor the entire work. And for word lovers, as so many fiction readers are, there is something reassuring about the dictionary, a book that brings its own kind of order to the universe.

The dictionary structure of these novels also asks us to do more as readers, to fill in the gaps and put the pieces together to make a whole. Instead of being a path to follow, these books are a puzzle to solve. (Pavic also wrote “Landscape Painted With Tea,” a “crossword” novel where the plot varies depending on whether you read the segments “across” or “down.”)

At the same time, these authors know not to follow the lexicographical format too closely: These books are nothing but “good parts,” without the long, boring entries of a real dictionary. (Have you looked up the word get lately?) “The Lover’s Dictionary” gives us mere glimpses of the characters, and leaves us wanting more--and that may be, in the end, what these novels owe most profoundly to the dictionary format. As Levithan writes in the book’s entry for ineffable, “Trying to write about love is ultimately like trying to have a dictionary represent life. No matter how many words there are, there will never be enough.”

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.
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