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Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

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This review is not belated, because I snagged an advance reader copy off of eBay.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This playground maxim has echoed through the decades, and like so many well-known parables, it’s wrong. The core concept of Max Barry’s latest novel, Lexicon, takes this idea to its logical conclusion: turning words into literal weapons.

Lexicon employs a split narrative, showing the reader a vast underground organization through the eyes of a panicked, confused victim, then through its most powerful operative. The nameless group has harnessed the power of words that people used to call “magic”, distilling and refining the fearful ability to control people with modern linguistic theory and centuries of practical application. What follows treads in Barry’s familiar wheelhouse of thriller, though it strays even further into sci-fi territory than his previous novel, Machine Man. The novel splits its attention three ways: developing its deep protagonist and antagonist characters, weaving a tense and action-filled story, and exploring a fascinating world where language has the power to grip and hold on to the human mind.

The first half of the book merely hints at the Organization that dominates the narrative. Long ago, a group of brilliant people studied the biblical Tower of Babel and similar stories throughout human history, finding that language is the common thread in events that have disrupted entire regions. Through careful experimentation, they’ve distilled language down into “command words,” nonsensical to all but an incredibly specific subset of people. Their operatives are called and named after Poets (“They’re good with words”), and they do all kinds of secret agent chicanery using these words as their wetwork tools.

While the setting is fascinating, it’s the characters that will push you through. Barry excels at female leads, and Emily is hands-down his best yet, taking the Oliver Twist motif in a twisted (sorry) direction. Her coming-of-age story drives the whole plot, though you’re never sure if you’re supposed to be rooting for or against her. She guides the reader through the Organization, agonizingly slowly at times, but in such a way that allows you to appreciate the gravity of the linguistic power they’re trying to control. Will, the other side of the coin, plays the everyman. While his story isn’t quite as interesting - most of it is spent running - the payoff at the climax makes the investment well worth it.

The prose itself is another draw, as anyone who’s delved into the author’s previous work knows well. While not quite the non-stop wit of absurdist authors, the dialogue and monologue of Barry’s characters is more natural, with some laugh-out-loud black humor that can creep into the most serious of moments. While the initial chapters are very contrasting, owing to the non-linear nature of the story’s design, things soon ramp up to breakneck pace. Once you reach the middle of the book you’ll find it hard to stop until the end.

In between chapters, Barry delivers short snippets of prose exploring how language works in the real world, and the ways in which the Internet is changing it. How does our always-on tracking make us vulnerable? How do world events shape the lexicon of English and other languages - and how does it work in reverse? These bite-sized pieces of food for thought will keep you thinking about the application of language in life and society. Oh, and between these bits and in the themes in the main story, the author rolls around in linguistic theory like my dog in a pile of horse dung. (Keep an eye out in these interstitial pages for references to previous Max Barry books.)

All that said, the ending is a bit of a let-down for me. It’s definitely one of Barry’s weakest, which is disappointing, since Lexicon is by far his most ambitious novel to date. The “big bad” seems to devolve towards the end, and the final note is left unexplained, to the detriment of both the reader and the characters. When it comes to endings, less is oftentimes more. Here’s a good example of where less is just less.

Even so, Lexicon is a must-read for fans of Barry, or anyone who loves a smart thriller with a hint of science fiction. Those who’ve studied language or persuasion will get a particular kick out of the themes presented, and everyone else should enjoy the wonderful characters and fascinating framework.

Lexicon will be available in print and digital on June 18th.