Hunger for written language rages in Lance Blunt's brain, eyes and chest. He wants to gorge himself on it, but he has a major problem: he can't read; letters are nothing but a pile of indecipherable rubble.
When Lance receives an anonymous job offer from Emberton Dictionary, which also holds out the possibility of a resolution to his "particular difficulty," he accepts. From the moment he steps into Emberton Tower, where the dictionary is produced, it's clear he's confronting a major mystery.
Emberton is Toronto-based writer Peter Norman's first novel. He has published two poetry collections, and his short fiction and non-fiction have been widely published in anthologies and magazines.
As the publisher promises, this is a work that will satisfy lovers of language. The debate on the purpose, meaning and origin of language is spread throughout the novel, and readers should feel free to jump right into the debate.
This well-paced contemporary gothic novel slides seamlessly from a vague sense of disquiet to full-blown horror, from ominous noises in the heating pipes to serial murder.
The metonymy of horror is interspersed with layers of satire, directed at the company's marketing department, where Lance works.
Ms. Shillingsham, the president of the marketing department, explains their function: "We meet. It is what we do." And what are the meetings about? Important business: who should change the filter on the coffeemaker; what flavour of tea should be stocked; whether they should ask to have the water fountain fixed. Those meetings conceal the department's deadly purpose.
Lance teams up with Elena, a young etymologist living off the radar in the Tower. Elena believes the answers to the Tower's mysteries are in the archives, locked away underground.
They realize quickly the Tower is an environment about which it's not safe to be curious, an attitude well-reflected in the conduct of the rest of the staff.
Lance is summoned to meet Mr. Emberton, the ancient heir to the company. Priests and mystics have "tried to push against the boundaries of language, discover where words end and the divine begins," he says.
Emberton's father found the answer, building a structure (the Tower) that is "sensitive to language, can absorb the word, reduce it to its primal power." He gives Lance an elixir that allows him to read. The fluid, he says, is, "Language, its very heart distilled."
In Emberton's view, this fluid represents power. "You don't need a purpose for amassing power, Lance. It is its own purpose. It is not a means. It is the end."
The Tower, which produces this fluid from old words discarded from dictionaries, has developed an insatiable and malevolent appetite, and is reaching out to devour language from the world outside.
All the while, debate rages over the need to modernize the dictionary. Mr. Tradd, an elderly editor disparaged by his colleagues, argues that if the language is permitted to fall apart, civilization will collapse.
Elena disagrees. "Decay is essential." She sees languages as a species. "A beautiful one, yes, but it must not stop evolving."
The stakes are high. The fate of human languages is on the table as Lance discovers the real cost of harnessing the power of words, and challenges the evil that is the Tower.
Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer who has just published his first novel, Skippy's War.