Max Barry’s 2003 novel Jennifer Government was a spectacular, and terrifyingly possible, near-future dystopia of corporate overreach and government impotence. And his latest novel, Lexicon is a worthy followup — a crazily inventive conspiracy thriller about the abuse of language as a weapon.
In a world where a secret Organization trains “poets” to manipulate, or even outright control, people and governments through language, something has gone horribly wrong. It’s not immediately clear what has happened — but it centers on Broken Hill, a small and currently abandoned Australian mining town.
The poets use a combination of persuasive techniques, from realistic neurolinguistic priming to what one character refers to as “word voodoo.” With the right combination of syllables, poets can make people pay attention, forget things, or even pick up a gun and start randomly shooting. Poets have to match these words to the listener’s personality — so the best poets are not merely magic word-memorizers, but people carefully attuned to others who reveal nothing of themselves.
There are two distinct plots in the book. In one, we follow street kid Emily as she attends a very strange school and in the other, Wil and Tom run from – or perhaps to, or even with – the Organization. As these stories move forward and backward in time, the reader uncovers what has happened in Broken Hill. At first it’s unclear how the two stories relate and each time you think you’ve figured it out, Barry spins the whole thing around 180 degrees.
It’s fitting in a story about words, that one of the book's touchstones is the story of the Tower of Babel. Barry uses both Biblical and Aboriginal versions to explain the roots of a world where words are magic. But the book is less interested in the past than it is the here and now. News reports and blog comments keep the very plot-driven novel from feeling as if the characters are alone in the universe. There are real people in this world who are being manipulated by the Organization. There is a small section of the book where two poets discuss using the internet to further their goals – how to identify people, how to tailor messages for specific groups and how this allows them to sway people – that feels awfully realistic in our NSA PRISM world for a book filled with magic words.
Barry seems just as interested in what he doesn’t say as what he does. He doesn’t even tell readers when the book is set, until the last chapter. Partly this keeps the suspense up and the plot spinning, but it seems more purposeful than that. The characters are operating in a world of extreme secrecy and emotional discipline. When they put pieces together or make suppositions about the past, it becomes clear that some of these gaps are simply unfillable.
There’s no way to know, even in a fictional world. But though the book deals in storytelling and gaps, it’s surprisingly not overly focused on the language of the prose. Don’t get me wrong, the book is well written – especially the descriptions of the Australian desert – but it’s not poetic or showy. Nor does it seem to be engaged in any Oulipo-esque formalism. Lexicon may be about words, but it’s not taking itself or words too seriously.
The novel has some fun touches – the poets all have been assigned the names of real poets, and it’s neat to figure out some of the less famous names and where they fall in the Organization’s hierarchy. And Barry is more than capable when it comes to writing about shoes. You’ll also never feel the same way about filling out an online questionnaire again.
Lexicon is an exciting, enjoyable book that looks closely at power and influence. It’s a summer thriller with something to say and some intellectual meat on its bones. If you liked any of Max Barry’s previous books, you should definitely check this one out. And if you haven’t read any of his stuff before, this one is a great place to start.