Unreliable Definitions

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Definition
By Graham Guest
Floating Records Press, 2018
134 Pages, $9.99
Review by Christopher Lura

There are three definitions of the word “dictionary” in the dictionary on the computer on which this review is being written. Not once in these three definitions is the word “dictionary” to be found. This is good—it means that the writers of these definitions are following that age-old adage to not use the word being defined in the definition of that word. However, implicit in this adage is the idea that the other words are somehow more rhetorically viable within the definition, and further, that their definitions are otherwise reliable ones.

But what would happen, say, if one were to look more closely at those other words? What if we were to glance at the definitions of those other words just to check whether their definitions support the way they are being used elsewhere in the dictionary?

Fortunately, we don’t need to undertake this little experiment, because Wayne Floyd—a fictional character invented by Graham Guest, the author of a new work of—let’s call it “definitional narrative” for the moment—has done so for us in his new novel Definition, published by Floating Records Press. Floyd, a paraplegic “philosopher” currently serving time on death row in Texas for murder, has compiled what is ostensibly a critique of the reliability of dictionary definitions. Guest invented the character in an earlier novel called Winter Park, which documented Floyd’s downward path from alcoholic and drug-addled philosopher through a neurological breakdown and the act of murder that landed him in a Texas penitentiary. This new book is a sort of sequel to that earlier novel, and it is presented as a quasi-academic text that Floyd has produced on death row in the time period following the close of events in Winter Park.

The introduction to Definition lays out the scope and ambition of Floyd’s lexicographic project: “This is an investigation of the definition of the term(s) ‘parking lot’: ‘an open area of ground in which people can park their automobiles.’” The rest of the introduction indicates that each of these signal words will be explored in turn—utilizing the dictionary—to determine whether or not they serve reliably within the definition for “parking lot.”
This proposition is, of course, preposterous. And Floyd—or at least Guest—clearly knows this. Nevertheless, Floyd proceeds to investigate for the reader whether the words used to define “parking lot” are themselves defined in such a way that their use in the definition of “parking lot” is supported. In the process, Floyd discovers, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the dictionary is not a perfect document.

As he moves along in his compulsive digression, Floyd brings us around to such urgent questions as the following: If the definition of “parking lot” indicates it is a ground for parking an “automobile,” and the definition of “automobile” indicates it is a vehicle that carries “passengers,” does that mean that if a vehicle has arrived in a “parking lot” with no “passengers”—just a driver—that the “parking lot” is no longer, technically speaking, a parking lot?

Is this a work of linguistic analysis? Is this a critique of logic and analytical philosophy? Is this meant to be a revelation that the definitions whose truth we had faith in, were merely rhetoric all along? No. This is an absurdist work. Its target is not really the dictionary, but rather that quotidian faith itself, and the slippery use of definitions and the logic associated with them which people—writers, journalists, teachers, students, anyone really—utilize in their lives.

At 130 pages, it is a short book. It maintains a powerful conceptual edge throughout that successfully underpins its experimental project. Although the book’s primary audience is inevitably going to be the dictionary dreamers, outsider academics, hobo lexicographers, and steampunk language philosophers, the book also poses reasonable questions for more mainstream users of “definitions” as well: after all, if a dictionary is not definitive, what is it? Approximate? Scholars would probably instantly point out that yes—a dictionary is exactly that: it is a usage guide, not an argument for a non-contradictory internal system of word meanings. Does it matter that, as Floyd points out, the definition of “parking lot” in the dictionary might also apply to hotel lobbies and “the bottom of the ocean”?

Well, Floyd unpacks that for us as well.

Although Guest presents Floyd as a passionate thinker, in general Floyd’s neuroticism is as much a part of the progression of the text as his ideas. Floyd frequently converses directly with the reader, and his language is sufficiently tongue-in-cheek to keep the reader engaged in an exposition that is as funny as it is strange.
In general, Floyd’s treatise will remind readers of a precocious child who insists on pointing out to his parents that, in fact, the ocean is not blue—”You just have to look at it,” the child might say, and then—when that revelation doesn’t seem to excite his parents too much—proceeds to draw up a large chart where he has provided a sample mark of every “blue” crayon in the box to further demonstrate the color discrepancy, certain that this will help them understand the extraordinary depth of his discovery.

“Yes, yes, we know,” the parents will probably reply. “You’re right. I don’t know why we say that. Now can we go back to just enjoying ourselves at the beach?”

Guest, we assume, would find this kind of response worthy of contemplation. Perhaps we should as well.

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Christopher Lura is an independent editor and writer. He previously worked for University of California Press and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and he has edited books for publication at leading American publishers including Stanford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and University of California.

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