BOOK REVIEW: Lexicon

lexicon book cover

‘Words aren’t just sounds or shapes. They’re meaning. That’s what language is: a protocol for transferring meaning… As it turns out, the protocol can be hacked.’

Max Barry’s fifth novel takes another brilliant concept and makes it soar.  Words are Power.  It’s a simple principle but too big to fully grasp in our day-to-day lives.  Words entice.  Words provoke.  Words control.  A clandestine group have conducted experiments, down through the centuries, refining their techniques and using their Lexicon to shape the world.  Emily Ruff was homeless, scraping by as a hustler.  Then the Poets showed up.  Now she’s going to a swish school and learning that life is what you make it.  Literally.

Wil Parke is an ordinary guy, trying to live an ordinary life, but that’s all about to go to hell.  Virginia Woolfe wants him dead, and Woolfe gets what she wants.  One man may be able to help Wil, but that kidnapping thing has made him hard to trust.  How do you fight an organisation that can hack your mind, anyway?  If that wasn’t enough, there’s a WMD waiting in Broken Hill, Australia that might be the word of God.  Who knows what would happen if a Bare-Word got into the wrong hands?  We could be facing another Babel event!  Time and options are running out, Woolfe is closing in, and anybody could be compromised.  The chase is on.

I love Max Barry’s work.  He has a free and easy way with his writing, rendering it an effortless read, yet he knows how to make you think.  His imagination shoots sparks out like a stick of cartoon dynamite, each setting their own little blazes in the reader’s mind.  You may not even notice it as you whip through his books, but by the end you will always see the world with fresh eyes.  In many ways Lexicon is a literary X-men: a powerful tract on responsibility and consequence, masquerading as an entertaining bit of fluff.  If The Academy is the X-Mansion, then Emily Ruff is Rogue – a vulnerable young girl who’s been through tough times.  She finds it hard to trust others, yet has a burning need to make connections with people.  I took to her immediately.

Barry sketches his characters out through dialogue and action, rather than forcing us to rattle around in their minds.  This makes for a lighter read and keeps the narrative from getting too bogged down.  It has the added benefit of encouraging the reader to fill in the gaps with their own little elements of back story and motivation, according to taste and inclination.  We get very little of Emily’s early days, but enough to recognise some of the reasons why the Poet’s would hold a strong attraction to her.

Compared to her desperate existence, the Poet’s power is magical – salvation, if she can just manage to grasp it.  Wil is a very different kind of character, out of his depth from the very start.  It’s wonderful to see a main male character not be an action hero for a change.  He doesn’t fail to engage your sympathies, but he did annoy me in the same way that helpless female characters get under my wife’s skin – on the surface we feel they’re an embarrassment to our gender, but underneath we suspect we’d fare no better.

The narrative is expertly put together, passing plot elements back and forth, from side to side like a huckster with a game of ball and cups.  He likes to keep us on our toes in terms of where the (fairly simple) plot is heading, but also takes the opportunity to use scenes in different time periods to hide or reveal aspects of character and motivation.  I did occasionally find myself confused as to the chronology of certain scenes, but there’s an argument for making your readers work a little bit.

I was floored by how well he was able to manipulate my feelings about certain characters at certain parts of the story, in a way that would simply not be possible if it were told any other way.  He ‘compromises’ the reader with his structure, capturing our attention with scenes of high drama, bypassing our filters with obfuscation and misdirection, then making us think exactly what he wants to – the sly bugger.  I’d be tempted to cry ‘railroading,’ but it’s such a cheeky way to tell his story in the context of his premise that I have to shrug, smile and take my hat off to the guy.

Each chapter ends with a pause for thought about our words or a snippet of ‘real’ reportage explaining the debris from the story to an unsuspecting world.  It adds an edge to the tale with regards to how our own opinions, theories and ‘facts’ are manipulated or misdirected by those who have power.  How much do we know and how much do we assume we know, based on bits and pieces of information?

It’s hard to know how to characterise the book in terms of genre.  Barry flirts faintly with religious imagery without making definitive statements; edges fractionally into SF courtesy of the very-near-future setting; yet the central fantastical element is far closer to magic in appearance and effect – though not at all in style.  I love the rationale he gives for the Poets power.  He makes a kind of convincing science out of magic – or at least a method to convince modern minds there’s a way ‘spells’ could actually effect somebody.

There are no dark arts or glowing wands here, though – it’s all about psychological identification and control.  Max alluded to the real-world issues underpinning the notion in an interview with Geek Syndicate, back in June:

The loss of privacy over the last ten years has been extraordinary… We know privacy is important, logically, but when we’re offered things like reward points or increased safety, we usually go with that instead…  We’re social animals; we want to connect. We want to know other people and be known ourselves. But there’s a great vulnerability in doing that. Even on a purely personal level, forgetting about government spies and corporate data mining, allowing someone to truly know you is granting them power over you.  It’s a very delicate thing.

Perhaps it is better not to try to put the book in a box, after all.  It deserves to breathe and speak in its own way, to each person who encounters it.  So do yourself a favour – track this down and read it.  Enjoy the ride, let those sparks ignite in your mind… and try not to get too paranoid.

Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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