“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.”
Remember when your mother told you sticks and stones might break your bones but words were essentially harmless? Turns out she was wrong, right? Welcome to the world of Lexicon in which the pen really is mightier than the sword, but it’s handy to have both. People with a gift for persuasion are gathered and schooled, in neuro-linguistics and programming and language, to build up what is essentially a gift of the gab to weapons grade. It used to be called magic. Being able to use the words particular to a person to undo them, or control them. Now, it’s called persuasion. Or marketing.
Emily is a street kid with a gift for reading people and sleight of hand. She also has a problem with authority. She’s recruited to become a poet, but during her years of training proves herself “undisciplined”.
Good words were the difference between Emily eating well and not. And what she had found worked best were not facts or arguments but words that tickled people’s brains for some reason, that just amused them. Puns, and exaggerations, and things that were true and not at the same time.
Wil is an Australian who has just stepped off a plane and headlong into a frantic escape from unknown assailants. He is not sure if he’s kidnapped or saved and he certainly doesn’t want anyone poking around inside his head.
Meanwhile the Australian town of Broken Hill sits vacant, the victim of a mystery “toxic spill”, collateral damage in a war of words that has very real consequences.
My first thought while reading this novel was that Max Barry is probably a really great guy. There is a sense of humour, particularly in Wil’s narration, that spills out unexpectedly. (This is backed up by what is probably the best author’s acknowledgements I’ve ever read. I’d recommend the book on that basis alone.) My second thought was what the hell is going on? And that thought stayed with me for most of the first half. I was engrossed in Emily’s story, I wanted to hear more from her, more about the skills she was developing, more about this sub-culture. Instead her story was interspersed with Wil’s, which was essentially a never ending action movie with no real meaning because I couldn’t figure out what they were running away from. Also, Wil struck me as a little dense. About halfway through I wanted to put the book down. I’m so glad I didn’t.
You know that thing where it’s past midnight and you should go to bed but you can’t because oh my god this book? I was sitting up til 2am, every muscle in my body tense, because serious stuff was going down in this novel and I just could not stop reading. The various plot elements come together and with some great foreshadowing and suspense Lexicon suddenly turns into an unputdownable page-turner. If anything this concept was so good I wished it the novel had delved deeper, played less with car/helicopter/plane chases and more with its own world of word-smiths. But by the final page I didn’t really care. That’s probably a sign that whatever wobbles the first half had weren’t that big a deal. It’s probably also a sign that you should grab a copy and check it out.
Lexicon, Max Barry: three and a half stars.
Read it it if: you’re keen on a bit of adventure, you don’t mind a few pacing issues, you’ve always thought the pen to be the mightier.