The Short Version: A man named Wil Parke is, for reasons unknown, assaulted and kidnapped in an airport arrivals lounge. A young girl, Emily Ruff, is plucked from the streets of San Francisco and brought to an exclusive school where students are taught to use specific words to control other people. Their paths are set to converge on a small town in rural Australia and a word of such unimaginable power that civilization itself could fall…
The Review: I’m a sucker for getting conceptual about language. That’s probably why I enjoy reading – and writing, and talking for that matter – as much as I do. I love the power inherent in words; the ability to conjure images, emotions, actions even. And Lexicon is equally as in love with these concepts, taking it to the conceptual level of words being effectively weaponized. It’s a great idea and one rife with possibility – but also one that can easily be overwhelming.
Barry starts off well enough, though. With short, terse lines, the reader is plunged directly into the action without any semblance of bearings or understanding – only that some crazy shit is happening and that we’re right smack in the middle of it. After a whiplash-inducing chapter, we get tossed to another story – Emily’s, the former being Wil’s – and as such we’re treated to two alternating views of this mysterious organization of “poets”. That’s what they call themselves, by the way, in a pique of delightful imagination: they all, once they graduate from the school, are pegged with the names of famous poets. Atwood to Yeats, Eliot to Woolf. It’s a pretty neat trick although I wish I understood a little more about why any particular poet gets any particular name – it would seem to be a bit of a hierarchy thing (more famous poet = more power) but when Yeats tells Emily that he has a name waiting for her… I’m curious as to why that particular name. I have conjectures, but I wish that had been filled in a little more clearly.
This, actually, is my biggest gripe with the book as a whole. It pulses with invention and action, keeping you pretty much riveted… but I got the sense now and then that the idea was too big to be fully contained, that Barry was trimming things away in order to keep the plot moving along – but that the things that got trimmed away were what elevated the book from being just another techno-thriller. For example, when Emily ‘returns to the fold’ (shall we say) after a series of unfortunate events, we’re introduced to a ‘corporation’ that seems to run these poets – but there hasn’t been much trace of them up to that point. Similarly, the things that the corporation is doing – and the wider scope of the world that Barry is writing about – seem to stand… it’s not that they’re at odds with the story, rather the opposite I guess. These things become devices to serve the plot instead of being organic parts of the world that has been created. The last hundred pages, breathless as they were, devolve into a noisy cacophony of twists and set pieces that left me, as a reader, squinting and saying “…wait, so, the thing… didn’t… but it…” and it wasn’t the sort of confusion that you can shrug off and say “but boy was it fun!” Instead it’s the sort of confusion that leaves you feeling hollow, wondering what all the point of it was.
And this is a shame, because Mr. Barry has quite a bit to say and it’d be worth paying attention to. For one thing, he makes a lot of points under the surface of the plot about our increasingly oppressive international surveillance state. Most of these points come in asides of a kind – a neat, recurring textual trick where the chapters end with a small news clipping or an excerpt from a conspiracy messageboard. These are paranoid nutjobs for the most part – you know the kind – but within the story itself, Barry is making the point that these guys aren’t far off the mark. Look at how easy it is for Emily to be tracked – and also how easy it is to spin a story away from the truth. To allow people to make their own conclusions by a clever turn of phrase – conclusions that are then picked up and echoed down the line by the media, who interpret and continue the spin. He makes a strong point, even stronger perhaps in that he never appears to make it directly. It’s just there.
As for the linguistic stuff, I mean, the ideas are massive. The fracturing of language – the evolution of it. The idea that we could break down linguistics to a sort of base-code and, as such, corrupt others minds like a word virus… It’s such a cool and dangerous and dare-I-say original conceit that I ended up feeling disappointed at the altogether predictable ends towards which it was turned in this novel. I won’t give away the plot twists, although most readers will see at least several of them coming from miles away – I’ll just say that such a dazzling firework of a concept surely deserves a better denouement than something picked off the James Bond scrap heap.
(Also, for those who are going to ask: no, I haven’t read Snow Crash – but it’s on my list now, seeing as it has been referenced re: this book several times…)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I was sucked in from the very first moment – and, for the large portion of the middle of the book, the ideas and learning about this all-too-conceivable underworld were all I needed. But as the plot turned to tropes and formulaic clichés, I felt let down. As the pages dwindled, the concept seemed to defeat the story, where it should’ve enlivened it – and we were left with a streamlined, reduced version of something that could’ve (if it had really gone off the rails and gone crazy) been deeply satisfying and exciting. Still, a well-executed thriller is nothing to snub one’s nose at – and on this front, Lexicon does, at least, deliver. It just could have delivered so much more.