Words are wondrous things. I recently read a quote that reflected on how every story we read is just a different combination of the same 26 letters, and this seems quite magical to me. I spend a great deal of both my professional and private lives around words and, indeed, I sometimes even dream about them. Words and the meaning we derive from them are the cornerstones of society–some words offend us and some warm our hearts, but without them, our world would cease to function. Max Barry takes this idea and extends it a few paces further in his latest novel, Lexicon.
“You and I are not grunting at each other. We’re transferring meaning. Neurochemical changes are occurring in your brain at this very moment, because of my words.”
In the Lexicon world, words are weapons and gifted wordsmiths, referred to as poets, are able to manipulate and persuade others with nothing more than their linguistic talents. An elite organisation has discovered that standard brain responses to language can be neutralised and separate response pathways can be created. Sounds complicated, but Barry takes his time to lay out his amplified-mindgames-with-deadly-consequences theory, and it works. The story isn’t linear and frequently alternates from past to present, but when it clicks into place, you may experience a moment like this…
Barry’s Lexicon has all the ingredients of a good psychological thriller. Intense power struggle? Check. A complicated and flawed heroine that readers love to hate, and do so equally? Check. A goofy and loveable protagonist, thrust into a dangerous and complex world? Check. An organisation that seems intent on taking over the world? Obviously. A doomed and tragic love story? Just a pinch…
“I don’t think you’ve been in love. Not recently, anyway. I’m not sure you remember what it’s like. It compromises you. It takes over your body.”
But it contains additional layers that take it above the realm of standard thriller and transform it into something else entirely, something unique and special. Barry has an almost poetic respect for words, and Lexicon is perhaps at its core a love letter to the power of language. It highlights the best and the worst of what our words can do and paints a not-too-unbelievable picture of the future.
Lexicon won’t be the best-written book you read all year, but I challenge you to find a more original and peculiar story. I’ll be honest, it does take a little bit of perseverance to get into. The build-up is a touch clumsy and could have been tightened somewhat. Once you experience the lightbulb moment, however, it’s smooth sailing through to the explosive climax. Congratulations, Max Barry. You not only reminded why I love words, but more importantly, why I got into this business in the first place.