Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault

This debut novel has a fascinating premise, insight into an esoteric environment, strong thematic resonance and competent characterization. It's an intriguing and engaging read, if not a great one.

The hero of the story is a recent college graduate named Billy Webb. Not highly employable in New York with his philosophy degree, he ends up hired as a writer for Samuelson Company, a mythical publisher of American dictionaries. Thus we, along with Billy, are introduced into the arcane world of citation collecting, research reading, defining, and fielding ridiculous requests for information from a public that could be better informed.

Arsenault was herself a lexicographer, and she deftly reveals the nearly silent and introverted world of intellectuals who cull language rules from publications. One of the more disruptive ideas introduced in the course of the novel is that lexicographers should go out into the world and discover how language is being used in common life, before being ossified into print. But the senior Samuelson is appalled at the idea that lexicographers should listen to radios, or watch television, and so the world Billy enters remains as quiet and remote from the outside world as it would have been in the 18th century.

Billy's assignment on the first day is to read the "front matter" of the dictionary--all the pages most dictionary users skip, which explains rules of pronunciation, the rule for listing spelling variations (alphabetically), what a schwa is (the "uh" sound in English, represented by an upside down letter e). You can practically feel Billy's eyelids sagging as he works his way through these pages, and share his discouragement when he looks at the clock and sees only 26 minutes have passed.

As Billy gets used to the place, however, the dreary atmosphere lightens, and becomes a calm place of intellectual rigor, a condition placed into comic relief by the occasional phone call from the public. The invisible man in the next cubicle fields a question about the difference between a "boil" and a "pimple," and ends up recommending that the caller consult a medical practitioner. After all, he says, speaking to a doctor will not only give the caller the proper word to use, but will also allow for treatment. Arsenault plays up the wry humor of the situation by recording only one side of the conversation.

Once the atmosphere and personalities of the place are well settled, a mystery pops up. Lexicographical queries also arrive by letter, often from bored men in jail who have the time to obsess over arcane oddities. Why does "editrix" have two possible plurals ("editrixes" and "editrices") but "dominatrix" has only one? A review of the sources for "editrix" turns up something odd--a citation from a source that seems to be a book about dictionary editors, called "The Broken Teaglass."

Billy and the slightly more senior Mona Minot turn up quite a few more of these odd citations, that seem to be about this workplace. Each of them is much longer than a typical citation, and the word they ostensibly source is often unusually irrelevant to the text. And since when is a book published with a precise date, 14 October 1985, as "The Broken Teaglass" seems to be? And why are all the page numbers less than 100?

Mona can't locate any book called "The Broken Teaglass," nor can she find any references to the alleged author "Delores Beekman." And one of the cites mentions "a corpse."

The mystery becomes irresistible to Mona, and she drags Billy along with her for quite a while before he becomes interested himself. Are there sinister ties to the apparently kindly head of the editorial department? What about the retired editor who stops by once a month to socialize and deliver doughnuts? Is there way to locate all the "Teaglass" cites short of paging through the millions and millions of paper citations that have yet to be computerized?

There is a method to the madness, and Arsenault is able to use her own esoteric knowledge of words and lexicography to lead us along with Mona and Billy into the solution of the mystery. It turns out that the "Teaglass cites" are all for words that entered the language during the 1950s.

In the end, the journey is more interesting than the destination. The few, disconnected paragraphs hint at a more dramatic and thrilling story than the one that ultimately emerges. Corpses and madness are hinted at, but ultimately a dictionary publisher is not ripe ground for Poe-like gothic tales.


What ultimately emerges, and is reproduced in whole, is the story of a former lexicographer at the company. While walking home one evening, she was grabbed by a scary guy who apparently was attempting to abduct her. She had a bag in her hand, full of broken glass--the tea glass she had shattered while at work, and she was taking it home to dispose of. She shoved the glass into the man's neck and escaped. She was hysterical, but unable to tell her boyfriend what had happened. The man died, and the search was on for "The Glass Girl."

Turns out the guy had recently served time for another botched abduction, and was suspected of at least one murder/dismemberment that couldn't be proved against him. The Glass Girl was now a hero, but the murder remained unsolved and the Glass Girl was never identified.

The citations were her way of writing out her story, but then dismembering it as well; telling and untelling in the same act. The kindly head of the editorial department was her boyfriend at the time, and he knew about the citations all along. In the end, the story was re-scattered among the other citations, there to be discovered again by future editors--perhaps.

A solid B+ of a book--interesting setting, clever jigsaw puzzle of a mystery, gentle characters and a coherent conclusion. If the mystery had been juicier, perhaps, or if there had been some consequences for discovering the story, the book might have been more exciting and satisfying. As it is, the mystery is perfectly consistent with the atmosphere of the company--intellectual, but ultimately a bit boring.

A Word About The Audio--this was one I listened to from, and it was well presented with one quirk. Rather than having a single narrator for this first person novel, there are several, who are used to provide the voices of the other characters in dialogue. This is not necessarily a choice I would have made, as it is a bit jarring to get used to. The woman who voices Mona, for example, seems to have been recorded at different sound levels, and so her dialogue seems to come from a different location--it's rather echo-y and the treble is set higher, and it takes some effort to believe she is actually speaking to the narrator in the same room. On the other hand, having a different voice read the "Teaglass cites" makes them stand out from the the rest of the book effectively--aural indenting, one could call it.

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