“Vartix velkor mannik wissick! Leave your computer right now and go and pick up a copy of Max Barry’s Lexicon and read it. It is more important than food, water, family, and breathing. Also, swing by a burger place and pick me up a mushroom and swiss.”
From your confused face and continued presence in front of your computer/tablet, I’ll assume that my attempt to compromise you didn’t work. I must have screwed up in figuring out what segment of the population you belong to. You’re a clever one.
Granted, none of what I’ve just said will make sense to anyone who hasn’t yet delved into Barry’s language-oriented fifth novel Lexicon, but hopefully your interest has at least been piqued. And for any Barry fans who wonder if a book about the power of language is a step in a different direction for the Australian author, know that it isn’t. This is still very much within the same corporate-minded satirically dystopian universe that made books like Syrup and Company so much fun to read.
There is a school in Arlington, Virginia, overseen by a mysterious man named Yeats, that teaches its student body the inherent dominance that words can have over people. Regular words like these need not apply. The students are trained to categorize the world’s population into numerical segments, based on their personality and mentality. Once a person’s number is known, a specific set of syllables can be used to compromise that person, giving the student — or “poet,” as they’re referred to once they’ve graduated — the power to control their brain. Lexicon dips into the historical and biblical background of language — the Tower of Babel becomes a symbolic monolith — but never in a way that removes readers from the story. Barry is more interested in the emotional impact on words rather than writing a college thesis on why language is important to humanity.
The first half of the novel takes place in two different timelines. The first involves Emily Ruff, a homeless teenager who relies on street-corner con games to earn her meager wages, already partly understanding that the language she uses with customers has a large impact on how successful she is. Her talent is monitored, and she’s taken into the school, where attempts are made to eradicate her impish and impulsive manners. Her mentor, Eliot, knows that Emily’s potential looms large, but her inability to be fully controlled taints that potential.
Skip to the future, where Eliot and a team of poets invade the life of Wil Parke, seemingly the one person on Earth for whom compromising language has no effect. (He’s called an outlier a lot.) Wil’s brain may contain an extremely dangerous “baseword,” a primal syllable set that controls all who view it. The baseword was used by a poet named Virginia Woolf to more or less destroy the entire Australian town of Broken Hill and its 3,000 citizens, and Eliot is determined to stop her before she can wreak havoc elsewhere. The only thing is, Wil has no memory or idea who he is or what Eliot is talking about, and his continuous stubbornness balances Eliot’s reluctant authority in such a way that I wouldn’t mind watching these two guys in the most bizarre buddy-cop comedy that ever existed.
While time-shifting and perspective-flipping novels can sometimes get lost in themselves, Barry somehow keeps the narrative streamlined, parceling out information when it’s needed and keeping the sporadic action contained and right up in reader’s faces. The mass deaths of a whole town may seem large-scale, but once it’s experienced firsthand, it’s surprising just how personal and centralized the situation is, creating real suspense and fear over an event whose aftermath we’ve already learned about. More hit or miss for me were the interstitial bits between chapters, including news stories and blog posts, which do indeed expand upon our limited scope of the world we’re reading about, but in ways that are a tad too cheeky for my tastes.
The twists and turns the narrative takes are organic, and the story doesn’t hinge upon them, but it would still be a cheat for me to lay everything out for you right here, so I’ll just talk about the characters a little more.
Emily is the obvious star of the book, with a sardonic and almost blasé attitude about everything that is happening to her. We feel her power because she believes in her own power, even as she’s clearly the weakest person in the room. She becomes hardened by lost love and her own usurped individuality. Her yearning to understand the manipulative power of words outside of the formal education presented to her is particularly relatable, like wanting to blow things up in a video game before going through a tutorial.
On the flip side, Eliot and Wil are two characters who take time to develop, and not only because Wil doesn’t know himself. While the structure of Emily’s story is laid out in a fairly linear fashion, readers are dropped right into the middle of Wil’s hectic new existence, complete with gun battles, car chases, and fisticuffs. Eliot presents almost only his exterior, as Wil is an asset rather than a friend. By the end of the novel, however, they both feel like extremely fleshed-out characters, even if we’re just manipulated into feeling that way.
There are quite a few minor characters, many of whom have names like Plath and Brontë, which offer context for our main characters’ lives, but the one that truly matters is Yeats. His prideful clout and shadowy appearances sadly make him less of a championed villain than just a conceited douchebag, but his indirect story arc and unwillingness to get his hands (or his sweet leather shoes) dirty make him the perfect foil for our main characters, who aren’t always on the side of good themselves.
A dystopian novel where language is often more powerful than weapons could easily become pretentious or undefined, peppered with overt political leanings and needless references to real life. Fortunately, Barry keeps the narrative’s viewpoint insular and further enhanced my belief that he just doesn’t trust anyone or anything that assumes power. And I like that.
But you can trust me when I say that Lexicon is an exceptional flashbang of a science fiction novel that doesn’t need to tether itself to tropes and stereotypes to retain the futuristic complexities and distinct paranoia that make sci-fi such an all-encompassing genre.
Now all you have to do before we’re finished here is answer one question. Why did you do it?