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NaNoWriMo aid: 'The Novelist's Lexicon'

November 18, 2010 |  2:55 pm

ThenovelistslexiconIn "The Novelist's Lexicon," published Tuesday by Columbia University Press, 77 authors each come up with a single word that creates a window on their work. To be fair, a few cheat -- Booker prize-winning novelist A. S. Byatt uses four words, "the novel as web" -- but for the most part, it's a fascinating and strangely disciplined set of responses. 

Put together by France's Le Monde newspaper and Villa Gillet, a cultural center in the Rhone region, the book is the result of their 2008 International Forum on the Novel. Participating authors -- from France, England, America and elsewhere -- were asked for a single word that's a passport to their work.

First published in French and now translated into English, the book includes Annie Proulx, Jonathan Lethem, Tariq Ali, Adam Thirlwell, Rick Moody, Dennis Cooper, James Meek, Daniel Mendelsohn and National Book Award winner Colum McCann.

Israeli humorist and filmmaker Etgar Keret chooses the word "balagan."

Balagan, a word that migrated to the Hebrew language from Yiddish, means "total chaos." But this word is unique because, contrary to the implied negative value the concept has in other languages, the subtext of balagan is positive. True, that positiveness is not overt -- a bit like a proud parent trying to hide a smile from a mischief-making son -- but it is completely there. Yet chaos for a society that is itself full of balagan is nothing less than proof of vitality itself.

So how can the fact that Daniel Mendelsohn's word is "unknowable," or Jonathan Lethem's is "furniture," help a NaNoWriMo writer get through the end of the month? Maybe not directly. But "The Novelist's Lexicon" poses one fun, implicit question: What's a single word that provides a window into any novelist's work? Any NaNoWriMo-er's?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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