“Words aren’t just sounds or shapes. They’re meaning. That’s what language is: a protocol for transferring meaning. When you learn English, you train your brain to react in a particular way to particular sounds. As it turns out, the protocol can be hacked.”
Okay, if you know me in the slightest then you will know that the above melting together of linguistics, neuroscience and programming jargon is enough to send me into the throes of a nerdgasm. Max Barry, previously best known for his novel Jennifer Government (now at the top of my reading list), has delivered a novel based on the concept that words can be used like keys, unlocking the doors of our minds. Once those doors are opened and our defences down then we are little more than automata awaiting instruction. It’s certainly a thought-provoking concept, so how does it work?
Lexicon is primarily the story of Emily, a street girl playing on her uncanny ability to read people and using it to part them from their money in illicit games of Find The Lady. Suddenly, one game takes an unexpected twist and, instead of walking off with the winnings, Emily inexplicably finds herself on her knees in a bathroom stall in front of her intended mark. She has failed the test, one she never knew she was taking, and whose reward was a rigorous schooling program and possible induction into the society of the Poets. A clandestine organisation using their knowledge of the hidden power of words to bend others to their will, the Poets are true modern-day magicians. Through her wiles and sheer stubbornness, Emily persuades them to allow her entry to the school.
Her training is not easy. Seemingly at a disadvantage compared to every student, Emily must struggle every step of the way. Her natural curiosity, willful nature and distrust of authority serve to help and hamper her until disaster strikes near the end of her schooling, with terrible consequences.
Running alongside this plot, which is told in a series of flashbacks, is the present day story of Wil. On arriving in America after a long flight from Australia his plans to meet his girlfriend are interrupted by a pair of men intent on abducting him, referring to him as ‘the outlier’. Before he knows it there is a trail of bodies trailing him from the airport, one which grows ever larger as his surviving kidnapper flees from a torrent of apparently brainwashed assailants, some his former colleagues. Strangely these new characters in his world are all named after poets, from his captor Tom Eliot to his nemesis known as Woolf.
What follows is one of those rare novels which deserves the appellation ‘rollercoaster ride’. On very few occasions have I been gripped by a story to this extent. For the record I am not usually a fan of the flashback as a means of unfolding a story. It’s usually handled in a clunky fashion and ends up giving away too much too soon. However, in Lexicon the interplay between flashback and current events is pitched just perfectly, revealing just enough each time to provide a satisfying ‘What the f**k?’ moment and keep the pages turning. In a beautiful touch, each chapter is interspersed with ‘real’ media updates providing the public reaction to events. From news articles to comments on conspiracy theory blogs they do a wonderful job of immersing the reader in the world, adding extra detail and authenticity in a unique way.
Students of linguistics will get a big kick out of the book’s central conceit, the power of words. The secret weapon of the poets is their ability to recognise to which of over a hundred personality types you belong (you will never look at a questionnaire the same way again). This done they can derive a series of words to unlock the various layers of security in your brain, exposing the operating system below and allowing them to tinker. It’s a hacker’s dream, the most powerful computer in the world laid bare by language. Some words, barewords, possess more power than others and their use – central to the book’s plot – can cause the catastrophes cunningly referred to as ‘Babel events’.
If there’s one complaint to be raised against Lexicon – and trust me, it’s hard to come up with one – it’s that the character of Emily could have used some work. It’s not that she isn’t adequately filled out; her back story works and for the most part she’s a sympathetic character. It’s just that she suffers from what I call ‘negativity overload’ – when the darker sides of a protagonist’s personality seem too overblown, leading them to make decisions which just don’t ring true in order to move the plot forward.
Seriously though, the above criticism is so small it barely even qualifies as nit-picking. Lexicon is a fantastic work of fiction which hits all the right buttons for me – engrossing, enjoyable and above all thought-provoking. Barry hits the pacing absolutely perfectly with barely any let-up in the action right through to the satisfying conclusion, only allowing rare pauses for breath between scenes. If you like intelligent, well-written and thoroughly original science-fiction then you should get yourself to the nearest bookstore (or website) right now and get this book.