Book Review: Lexicon
If Dan Brown were good with words and possessed a sense of humor he might have written Lexicon, the new novel by Max Barry. I won’t go so far as to call it a literary thriller, but it’s literate, and even about literature, kind of. More centrally, it’s about control: the simple power of words and the not-so-simple way that power is manipulated by profit-seeking fiends. Most of all, though, it’s about keeping the reader turning pages, and if you crack it they will turn.
The story begins when Emily Ruff (as in diamond in the) and her mentor Eliot (as in T.S.), both members of a shadowy organization in various levels of disaffection, square off for possession of a newly-discovered “object of biblical power,” a Bareword, or fragment of the original language, from before the tower of Babel collapsed and made a polyglot world. This fragment is dangerous—a word with the power to kill en masse.
What is this organization? It’s not the Masons or the Illuminati or the Men In Black but—reminiscent of all three—“The Poets.” Recruited at a young age for their powers of persuasion (as is our hero Emily, a cardsharp so poor she “didn’t know what the fuck sushi looked like,” lifted off the streets of Portland at the age of eighteen and trained Femme-Nikita-style at a sinister version of Hogwarts outside Washington, DC) the Poets are schooled in a kind of linguistic sorcery. By selecting a given victim and “speaking a string of words crafted for the person’s psychographic segment,” contre helo siq rattrak for example, the Poets are able to hijack the reflexes of their victims’ minds—hence the importance of that Bareword. There is fine satire here of contemporary advertising, filter bubbles, and data mining hazards like the National Security Agency, where the tech-savvy poets have access to “a vast database of shopping habits, Internet usage patterns, traffic flows, and more.” This is how, for years, the Poets have pulled strings to create the world we live in. Marketing is witchcraft, and we’re owned from afar.
The prose here is deft and the satire real. Take this disclaimer, included as an addendum (in fine print, at the bottom of the page) in a contract promising that all personal information submitted to TruCrop (one of many instruments of the Poets) will remain at all times confidential and undisclosed:
Although every effort is made to safeguard data TruCrop is not liable for any data breaches and/or release of personal information regardless of how it occurs (including but not limited to court-ordered release, government agency request, unauthorized access by employees and subcontractors, and hacking). […] These terms & conditions may change in the future and it is your responsibility to check our website to remain informed.
It’s difficult to be suspenseful and ironic at the same time, but the payoff is twofold: because the action in Lexicon is so breakneck, we don’t much mind when satire deals more blows than it lands, and because Barry clearly has a sense of humor and a light touch, it doesn’t matter that we don’t quite buy the premise—that there exist words that, for Jungian reasons, hold the power of life and death over us, quite apart from whatever meaning culture has assigned to them.
You won’t perish or find yourself zombified by the words in Lexicon, but you’ll surely lose sleep following Eliot and Emily to their bullet-whizzing climax in Broken Hill, Australia. And those two little words that compose the authors name will make you automatically shell out the money for his next, whatever the words inside.
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His writing on art and books has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Sculpture, and Bookforum. His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press.