Say the Magic Word: Lexicon by Max Barry

True fact: words have impact.

As readers, I doubt either you or I would dispute that, yet in the lexicon of Lexicon, the power of applied language is rather more dramatic than we might be inclined to imagine. Indeed, the right word could change the world. How, then, does one determine which phrases will prove most persuasive?

Furthermore, if there are right words, must there not also be wrong ones?

Unravelling these riddles seems simple to begin with. All we need is a meme. A few friendly questions followed by a couple that catch you off guard. For example, are you a cat person or a dog person? What’s your favourite colour? Do you love your family? Why did you do it?

Answer honestly, or not. In any event you reveal a great deal about your particular personality, which is all the knowledge a so-called “poet” needs to build a profile of your psychographic segment.

As Emily Ruff explains to a love-interest-come-experiment early on in Lexicon:

“A word is a recipe. A recipe for a particular neurochemical reaction. When I say ball, your brain converts the word into meaning, and that’s a physical action. You can see it happening on an EEG. What we’re doing […] is dropping recipes into people’s brains to cause a neurochemical reaction to knock out the filters. Tie them up just long enough to slip an instruction past. And you can do that by speaking a string of words crafted for the person’s psychographic segment. Probably words that were crafted decades ago and have been strengthened ever since. And it’s a string of words because the brain has layers of defenses, and for the instruction to get through, they all have to be disabled at once.”

Poets, then, wield words like weapons, and in Max Barry’s searing new novel, that’s exactly what they are, because the right sequence of sounds can unlock a person, essentially. Render someone open to suggestion. Tell them to do a thing and they will, without question.

Well, vartix velkor mannik wissick! I bid you, read this book.

Of course there’s more to Lexicon than cerebral theory. Alternating chapters, two absorbing central characters—Wil Parke and Emily, aforementioned—put Barry’s abstract into practice. On the streets of San Francisco, the latter makes her meagre ends meet by performing close-up magic, mostly games of Monte, on unsuspecting passers-by. The less attention she gets the better, so it’s a mixed blessing when she attracts the interest of a recruiter for a very unusual school.

“You went to school […] and you found it didn’t suit you very well. They wanted to teach you things you didn’t care about. Dates and math and trivia about dead presidents. They didn’t teach persuasion. Your ability to persuade people is the single most important determinant of your quality of life, and they didn’t cover that at all. Well, we do. And we’re looking for students with natural aptitude.”

Initially, Emily is suspicious, but with nothing to lose, and everything, potentially, to gain, she’s sent to be tested at an academy in DC, where—over a period of years—she’s taught how to be a poet. How to persuade, which she’s fantastic at, naturally, in addition to various ways to safeguard against invasion. Foremost amongst these defences is the premise that poets should keep themselves to themselves, revealing as little of their specific personality as possible; the ideal state is that of a blank slate.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Emily has particular difficulty with this. She’s been through it, as we’ve seen, and she doesn’t like to be told what to do—especially now that she knows poets can force her. So she breaks a few rules, behaves rather badly, and eventually, inevitably, Emily’s transgressions get her expelled from the academy. She’s summarily dispatched to a tiny mining town in Australia to wait however long as it takes for further instructions to follow, but though Broken Rock seems a hateful place—hellishly hot, in short—in time she comes to love it… especially when she meets Harry, a paramedic.

Review Lexicon Max Barry

Emily is certainly the starring character of Max Barry’s newest narrative, but instead of starting with the show-stopper, Lexicon begins—and ends—with Wil. Wil, who thought he had a loving girlfriend, once upon a time, as well as a life he liked and a bright future worth fighting for.

But now? Now he doesn’t know what to think. He’s abducted at the outset by rogue poets, and informed that the life he remembers is a lie. “He could feel memories scratching at the underside of his mind, just out of reach. But he didn’t have time for that,” largely because that’s when the shooting starts.

As it transpires, a woman known as Virginia Woolf wants Wil dead. Incredibly, however, his kidnapper protects him. In the aftermath of this frenetic firefight, the first pieces of the puzzle click cleverly into place. If Eliot is to be believed, then Wil was someone else, once, and if he can only remember that person, he could be the key to stopping the otherwise unstoppable: a powerful poet who years ago unleashed something called a bareword in a remote town in the Australian outback, killing thousands of people in the process.

Add to that, this:

“In every case, the appearance of a bareword is followed by a Babel event, in which rulers are overthrown and a common tongue abandoned. In modern terms, it would be like losing English. Imagine the sum total of our organisation’s work, gone. Our entire lexicon wiped out.”

Lexicon is simply gripping from the get-go, when poor Wil wakes up with a needle embedded in his unsuspecting eyeball, wondering what in the world has happened to him and why. We find out right alongside him, and the resulting revelations are as surprising as they are exciting. Astutely, the author allows us to revel in the thought that we’re ever a step ahead, though this is rarely the case… which is great! It makes Barry’s latest a game readers are guaranteed to win, because it’s fantastic fun to play, and at the end of the day, the solution is elegant and vastly satisfying.

Structure figures into Lexicon’s success in a fairly major way. Though it quickly becomes clear that they take place some time apart, the two discrete tales the text tells seem to unfold simultaneously as we see it, informing and influencing one another in a fascinating fashion. Don’t get me wrong: it’s no Memento, nonetheless it’s neat—if occasionally frustrating—to watch Emily learn as Wil forgets and vice versa, all while our own horde of knowledge grows.

Not that much of anything is certain in this blistering literary thriller. Lexicon twists and turns like a lost language, creating tension and expectations, systematically suggesting and then severing connections. Excepting a protracted flashback before the finale, the pace very rarely relents; the action is imaginative and exceptionally well handled; our grasp of the poets and the rest of the premise arises intuitively, without once feeling forced; meanwhile an appealing sense of humour sets off the story’s darker moments readily.

Max Barry has been an author worth watching since the publication of his first novel in 1999, but by weaving the incisive satire of Jennifer Government into a rather more manageable narrative, by way of better-developed characters and a far smarter sense of structure, I believe he’s hit on something special here. It’s really no surprise that Matthew Vaughn of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class fame has bought the rights to maybe make the movie; Lexicon certainly has the makings of a fine film.

For the moment, though, consider making do with this awesome novel. Pretty please?

Lexicon is published by Penguin. It comes out June 18.

Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.


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