Lexicon. By Max Barry. Penguin. $26.95.
A cerebral thriller – more thriller than cerebral, although with a large helping of both action and thought – Max Barry’s Lexicon is an intricately plotted tale of a present day much like our own, except that a secret society of people designated “poets” (and with names such as Yeats, Eliot and Brontë) have learned that language really does have power, and are using that knowledge to shape individual people and world events. They do not have the power of casting spells, exactly, but rather the power of identifying people with such precision that very specific words, some ordinary and some nonsensical, can be used to manipulate what those people do.
This is quite a premise, not unique but unusual enough to draw attention to itself. And the plotting is expert, focusing on two characters who initially seem unrelated to each other but who draw inevitably closer and closer as the book progresses. One is a young orphan named Emily Ruff, who is rescued from the streets of San Francisco and becomes the top student at the poets' private school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Emily, however, commits a cardinal sin by allowing herself to fall in love – which is forbidden because expressing so deep an emotion leaves a poet herself vulnerable to manipulation. This is scarcely a new idea – anyone who knows 1984 will remember the danger of allowing people to love each other – but Barry handles it with skill, and with enough intensity of pacing to distract readers from the underlying unoriginality of the concept.
The other character of importance here is Wil, a man without a past; again, he is a type, but is nicely fleshed out. Wil becomes a pawn in a civil war between rival factions of the poets – and when the poets fight, their verbal weapons can and do cause the death of thousands of innocents. It turns out, unsurprisingly but (yet again) in a very well-handled way, that the interlinked fates of Emily and Wil are crucial for the future not only of the poets but also of the rest of the world. Here too, this sort of “apocalypse almost now” concept, with the fate of everyone resting on what one or two people do, is scarcely new, but as in so many other aspects of Lexicon, Barry’s cleverness and pacing are such that readers will scarcely have time while reading the book to notice that this element of the plot has been done many times before.
Barry does an excellent job of keeping the separate lives and problems of Emily and Wil interesting and important in and of themselves, and although readers will realize early on that the two will be brought together eventually in a way more important than either one’s individual circumstances, the manner in which Barry does this makes sense, and his propelling of the story toward its climax is handled so well that even readers who notice things they have read before are unlikely to care – they will just be too involved in what is going on.
True, looking back on the book after reading it once makes some of its commonality with and borrowings from other works clearer. But for all that, many readers likely will want to read it again, because the whole notion of a world controlled by language is so intriguing. And when you think further about it, there are senses in which our world is controlled by language: there are certain words that people simply cannot say, with even a single instance of a politically incorrect, racially or sexually “improper” word destroying careers decades later.
Barry does push things somewhat too far, and some readers will pull up short at notions such as that of “barewords,” which are so potent that they can bring down civilizations – or raise them up. The book is also almost completely humorless, a flaw it shares with many thrillers but one that is particularly disappointing in a book about the power of words that is, after all, created using them. Lexicon sometimes seems to want to be taken more seriously than it is possible to take it – indeed, it would have been more powerful if Barry had shown the extent to which, in the real world, words do have the power to destroy people, or at least their careers (and, in a different sense, to raise people up, as in the case of politicians and comedians – two classes not so far apart as one might initially suppose). But Barry is writing here primarily to engage and entertain, and he does both those things very adeptly indeed. The result is that Lexicon transcends its narrative flaws, which include occasional lack of clarity as well as pervasive humorlessness; rises above elements that have been done before; and rises eventually to a level of genuine page-turning intensity. It is quite a thriller – and although it could have been more than just a thriller, it is, taken at face value and without spending too much time on the might-have-beens, a very impressive and very well-presented book within its genre.
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