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  • Word Bank
  • Devin O’Shea (bio)
Tales from Webster’s
John Shea
Livingston Press
222 Pages; Print, $16.95

In the Author’s Note, John Shea lays out the rules for the literary form he invented. Here’s how it works: Shea opens up Webster’s New World Dictionary, flips to a page, chooses a string of at least five words in sequential order, and lists them in bold on the left hand side of the page. On the right side, text, no more than 50 words, connects each keyword together in a narrative. The keywords are the anchors, the 50 words connect everything together in a poetic narrative. The familiar Webster’s Dictionary format is made strange; instead of a definition, there’s a short story. A tale from Webster’s amounts to a stylized flash fiction with a word bank.

Like any form, rules generate gains and losses; pros and cons; different size canvases to paint on. What’s gained by Shea’s form is a poetic short story structure that’s influenced by the constraints of the dictionary. Webster’s acts like a puzzle for the author. This style is made for a reader who enjoys refrigerator magnet adlibs.

In fact, each tale has the mood of Stephen Fry doing Mad Libs; someone with an expansive vocabulary has penciled in a word like “rauwolfia” every three sentences. This can’t avoid producing an elevated tone. It’s built into the form—literally taken from the dictionary. Tales from Webster’s mostly reads as though the dictionary is the narrator. As text, it’s like Webster’s come to life, speaking in free association, tying it all together by the tenth word. It produces something close to nonsense, but not quite.

Shea’s task as storyteller is to smooth the connective tissue between keywords in both voice and narrative. The keywords have to bring meaning out of the story, or they need to be blended in seamlessly with the background. Ideally, they should illustrate essential aspects of the joke, and do it in a way that doesn’t drop “Baedeker” randomly in a story about friends bickering over a female love interest. This is a huge, difficult, task. But, Shea has some tricks like blending really obscure keywords as last names. But that might illustrate a problem. Writing flash fiction is very difficult. Writing a short that is less than five-hundred words, and makes use of an obscure, alliterative, word bank, is something else. While it might be hard to construct a flash fiction piece out of thin air, and most authors would benefit from a grounding set of rules, this dictionary style challenge levels close to Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby (1939), which famously never used the letter “e.” An ideal Webster’s story doesn’t sound as though it was taken from the dictionary, and that seems nearly impossible.

Most of the stories in this collection have this lasting impression: I had no idea how this puzzle would be solved, but in the end we found a through line. It’s hard to reach prose that’s expressive and affecting when the narrative demands you use utenfra, utmost, Uto-Aztecan, then utopia in the space of two sentences. That is the core of book: Tales from Webster’s are difficult puzzles that have fun with, and rejoice in, words. In order to do that, they de-emphasize character, story, and emotion. Solving a puzzle is a distinct feeling from reading a short story. Occasionally, poetry can feel like puzzle solving, but Tales from Webster’s does not frequently reach that level of sophistication.

I have found it helpful to think in terms of the side effects of this form, and how some of Shea’s tricks backfire. One result is that it seems like many, many, characters are having free-associative vocabulary problems. Another: people are frequently confused about definitions, and use keywords incorrectly in order to keep us more in the real world, and less in the dictionary. Most of Shea’s stories have a comic fast-moving voice, and that makes perfect sense. When inviting a plot...


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