By Peter Norman

In the Introduction to their recent anthology of supernatural fiction, The Weird, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer make a brave attempt to define the undefinable.

In a nutshell, they see the weird as a mood more than a mode: one characterized by terror, unease, dread, a suspension of the rational, and “some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane.”

Emberton, the debut novel by Toronto-based poet Peter Norman, is weird. Very weird.

It is set, almost entirely, within a single building: Emberton Tower. This forbidding limestone edifice, which stands in some unnamed city’s downtown business district, is the home of the Emberton Dictionary. But the dictionary, like the tower, and like the Emberton family itself, has seen better days.

Everything about the Tower seems rooted in an earlier time. It is a little word unto itself where “age and immobility” reign: only a few of the offices are equipped with computers, and cellphone signals are suppressed. The furniture is antique and the carpets are worn, “a stolid dankness” infuses the air and there are growing cracks in the building’s foundations. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to work in such a shabby, claustrophobic, and pitiful environment.

Lance Blunt comes to work at Emberton for two very good reasons: he’s been offered a personal invitation and he has no other options. He is, after all, totally illiterate — which may make his being hired by a dictionary seem strange, even if he is only working in sales and marketing.

Concealing his handicap from his co-workers, however, turns out to be the least of Lance’s problems. The cafeteria food is disgusting. The tower is being intermittently shaken by what seem to be earthquakes. Employees are disappearing. One of Lance’s superiors has an addiction to sucking radiator pipes. And the basement houses a vast reservoir of malevolent golden salad dressing.

This dark pot-pourri of weird ingredients make Emberton an impossible book to classify. It is perhaps first and foremost a tale of gothic horror, with a contemporary digression into the field of medical terror. But it is also a slacker-style workplace satire, a crazy allegory, and a comic fantasy with a sub-plot involving a demure lexicographical romance.

You can see how these different genres and strategies play out in the various ways the Tower can be interpreted.

At the most basic level Emberton Tower is the archetypal corporate HQ; a soul-stealing, life-sucking beehive where human “resources” are just that. Workers are, literally, meat.

But the decrepit office building is also something more: an ivory tower and cultural institution whose heritage is the life blood of civilization. That is, language itself. And so the Fall of the House of Emberton is also the Death of the Book.

The mouthpiece for this point of view is the pedantic scholar Mr. Tradd (short for “tradition,” one assumes), who complains of how the degeneration of language will lead to the end of everything. He delivers the following howl in the midst of the biblio-apocalypse:

“Barbarisms in the lexicon! Errors canonized! No structure, no sense, no scheme. Why should buildings stand or traffic flow, or the beautiful idea survive? I embrace this. I endorse the destruction. Let the Tower fall!”

In the face of all this, the illiterate Lance represents the man of the future, perfectly adapted to survive the coming end of reading because he is better aware than most that reading is a drug, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

Finally, the Tower is imagined as a diseased body, with a polluted circulatory system and failing organs surrendering to age and corruption. But it is not exactly mortal. The selfish genes, or memes, of its DNA constitute the code of language, which is somehow bound up with both the origin and destiny of the species.

The best fantasy novels engage with us in a range of ways, and Emberton, like the Tower itself, has many different levels to explore. And, true to its weirdness, it suggests various ways of understanding a world beyond the literal and mundane.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 2, 2014. For my thoughts on another book with a very similar theme that came out at almost exactly the same time, see my review of Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange.

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