As a child, I spent hours with my nose buried in the biggest, heaviest tome in the house—the dictionary—and because I loved words, I was a champion speller (though never in an official contest). Of the many classes I've taken over my lifetime, one of my favorites in memory is that of second-grade spelling, for every week we were required to write a paragraph using the week's list of new words. From then on, words themselves always carried a huge imaginative freight. And so I felt an immediate keen interest when I came across Logorrhea, the stories in which were inspired by some of the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship words.
Naturally, a first glance at the front cover of Logorrhea charmed me. Its line drawing of a 1950s-ish little girl standing at a 1950s-ish microphone in a spotlight evoked memories of my 1950s childhood, and the declaration above the title, "Good Words Make Good Stories," seemed to promise that the logorrhea invoked would be informed by logophilia and that my association of logophilia with imagination would be affirmed. On second glance, though, the three lines of hype below the title suggested that this is just going to be another run-of-the-mill theme anthology in which one could expect a few good and a lot of so-so stories: "A spellbinding collection of tales from twenty-one of today's most imaginative storytellers." The pun functions as a wink, saying don't take this any more seriously than you'd take the hyperbolic statements found on any other book, rather than as self-conscious ironic gesture; and despite the claim on the back cover that the anthology is not only "a veritable dictionary of the weird, the fantastic, the haunting, and the indefinable" but also "for logophiles," it lowered my expectations--fortunately. Only one story was truly logophilic: Jeff VanderMeer's delightful tour de force, "Appoggiatura," which actually presents twenty stories-within-a-story for each of the words assigned to the other writers. This closing story could indeed be characterized as "a veritable dictionary of the weird, the fantastic, the haunting, and the indefinable" for logophiles. One other story, Alex Irvine's "Semaphore," involves a character who becomes obsessed with words and, indeed, with the spelling bees themselves. But few of the other stories take such an intense interest in the words they supposedly address.
In fact, the first three stories were a disappointment. If I had been reading the anthology for pleasure I might well have chosen to skip over all the other stories except those by authors whose work I seek out. The labor-intensive tedium of toiling through the long, convoluted sentences of the opening story, Hal Duncan's "The Chiaroscurist," never pays off with any sort of pleasure or insight; its world-building is a mishmash of pieces that don't cohere and a veneer of annoying re-nomination, and its narrator is the sort of Mary Sue protagonist typically created by late adolescent male poets circa 1970. "I am as much a whore as you"—he pompously proclaims to the whore he's been using nightly for months when she asks him to marry her—"More so, mi caria," he adds to thoroughly patronize her, "since I have slutted myself in more cities than you could probably imagine" (p. 15). I admit I lack an Inner Male Adolescent; it may well be that those who don't will enjoy the clichés that feminists like me find trite and silly.
Once past the first three stories, I encountered work ranging from mediocre to entertaining to stellar. In "Singing of Mount Abora," the gem of the anthology, Theodora Goss takes the context of Coleridge's Xanadu for situating her rather ordinary word, "dulcimer," and spins a tale that at first seduced and then delighted me as I realized that the two strands of the story are not a braid but a Möbius strip. The first of Goss's strands is written in formal, high storytelling prose, replete with a Cloud Dragon and Empress, a Phoenix and a Lion of the Sun, three seemingly impossible tasks, and a comb carved from the shell of the Great Turtle; the second strand, which at once resonates intriguingly with the first strand, is informal and set in modern Boston. Skillfully Goss merges these two styles into a single tale that finally must be read as a whole. Alan DeNiro's "Plight of the Sycophant" features another of his bizarre landscapes and hovers at the edge of allegory (and would, I expect, be more resonant read in a collection of his work than in this anthology). Leslie What's "Tsuris" brings insight to the reader's understanding of "psoriasis" by juxtaposing it with the Jewish word "tsuris" in a sympathetic, though critical, examination of a woman's visceral response to the ravages psoriasis has wreaked on her husband's body. Jay Lake's engaging "Crossing the Seven" invents a context in which "transept" means something different than the dictionary would have us believe and takes the reader on a harrowing journey that repeatedly tests its narrator's tact, ingenuity, ethics, and will to survive. And in Neil Williamson's "The Euonymist," in a future in which violent aggression across species has been replaced by domination through nomenclature, a man with a talent for finding the right names for persons, places, and things in a trans-species lexicon is forced to grapple with the politics for naming literally in his mother's backyard. Daniel Abraham's clever and entertaining "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" neatly gratified my appetite for tales of intelligence triumphing over brute power and wealth, though its ending came just a bit too pat. Michael Moorcock's "A Portrait in Ivory" was a smooth, pleasant (dare I say insouciant?) read, while Anna Tambour's "Pococurante" opened a window into the complex workings of ideals, attachments, and loyalty.
On the downside, several stories had terrific, alluring beginnings with disappointing middles and endings, and a handful didn't work for me at all. Perhaps this anthology's most infelicitous aspect is its proportion of stories written in the first person: thirteen out of twenty. (The twenty-first story, "Appoggiatura," offers a mix of first-person and third-person narratives.) Some of the anthology's best stories were written in the first-person, but the sheer coincidental repetition of "I," "me," and "my" from one story to the next grated on my readerly ear and prompted me to recall Samuel R. Delany's rule of thumb on first-person narrative: "take on the first person only when the character has an interesting voice. Limited third is a blessing for writing about the ordinary Joe or Jane, who doesn't have a particularly exciting or even interesting way of expressing him- or herself" (About Writing, p. 412). The only truly distinctive voice of all the volume's first-person narratives was that of Anna Tambour's "Pococurante." Tambour's narrator is a folksy Australian brimming with idiosyncratic expressions and vivid imagery. Consider her first sentences: "The whole town sucked in such a big breath, a fly would of clutched its throat, gasping. Would Pococurante raise a sweat to stay alive? We waved flies away with more effort." Reading whole clumps of first-person narratives almost convinces me of the validity of Delany's stricture; the writers of the first-person narratives couldn't know, of course, that more than half of the other contributions would also be writing in the first-person.
Logorrhea may not be filled with logophilic stories, but it does offer several fine tales. The Goss and VanderMeer pieces alone are worth the price of the volume.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.
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