Published by Penguin Press
Publication date: June 18th 2013
There is no introduction in Max Barry’s novel Lexicon. From page one where two men have inserted a needle into another man’s eye in an airport bathroom the reader is flung hard into a wholly different world. A compulsively readable, high speed, freakishly intelligent world. I read Lexicon during a 24-hour read-a-thon and it was the perfect novel for it because I didn’t want to come out. Once I had met these people called poets (because they can compromise others’ minds using words) and the insurgent group fighting against them, I was compromised and didn’t mind a bit.
Two stories unfold in Lexicon: one is of the Wil Parker, the poor man in the bathroom and the other is of Emily Ruff, a young woman living on the streets of San Francisco and skilled at con games. Wil is being abducted for being someone he is not. Emily has been chosen as one of the select group of people who are able to influence others naturally. She is sent to an elite school where this gift is honed into a skill—one that allows the user to control other people’s minds by using a complex series of words based on that individual’s personality type. While she is very good at what she does Emily’s street background makes her defensive and undisciplined with her skills and leads to her being temporarily banished to a small mining town in Australia as punishment. While there, she lives a boring normal life until she makes the one mistake a poet can never make: She falls in love.
For Wil there is no choice involved. He is informed that he is one of the few humans immune to coercion and that only he can stop a force that threatens to overtake the world. This force is known as a bareword—a word of such power that it does not need to be spoken but can wholly subjugate another’s will just by being seen. It appears to be in the hands of a renegade poet and with Wil’s help the opposition hopes to stop them. The problem? His mind has been scrubbed of his past so he has no idea where he fits in and which side is the right one.
The components in Lexicon are such that it would be easy to get left behind. Both time and space move at a different pace in the plot and the meaning of a town or character’s name changes depending on the chapter and perspective. Also, poets are given new names when they graduate, based on literary figures such as Yeats, Eliot, Woolf, Bronte, so who Emily is when the book starts may not be who she is later on. The good news is that Barry never loses track of even the smallest details in this novel and so saves the reader from floundering. Instead, he writes with consummate skill, planting clues and obscuring the truth in a maddening (but addictive) game of hide-and-seek. Villian, vigilante, or victim—it’s hard to be sure who is what until the end.
On a larger scale is Barry’s premise: words as weapons. It’s a very topical subject in so many arenas right now, be it verbal bullying or fear-based political rhetoric. With such a complex subject Barry does an ingenious job of taking Lexicon to a very simple ending. In all the noise of words that control he reminds us of the most powerful bareword of all.