Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (June 18, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 1594205388
  • Source: Personal copy

Imagine a world in which a few words can illicit a response from an individual, relinquishing their ability to resist commands.  That world is real. In an exclusive school outside of Arlington, VA, students aren’t taught the typical reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, they are taught to persuade, manipulating words as potentially dangerous and powerful weapons. Only the best students move on to become poets, an elite group of individuals who become part of an unnamed organization.

Emily is a runaway who lives on the streets of San Francisco.  She makes a living taking money from those who play her curb-side card game. Her talent of manipulation gains the attention of  the recruiters of this organization. She’s “enlisted” in the school and becomes part of a world in which individuals are no longer referred to as their original names, instead using names like Bronte or Yeats instead.  She soon discovers that individuals can be categorized by personality type and, using a select group of words they are forced to memorize, their minds can become unlocked, dominated by those who utter these words.  Never one to submit to authority, Emily prevents anyone from getting too close to her…until she falls in love.  Submitting herself to this “human” emotion weakens her, allowing her to be controlled, unleashing a power that is horrifically dark and deadly.

Meanwhile, Wil Parke is attacked and ambushed in an airport bathroom. Seemingly innocent on all accounts, his attackers claim he is an outlier, an integral part in a secret war of which he has no knowledge.  He is taken to Broken Hill, Australia, a town supposedly decimated by toxins. There, he and his remaining attacker hide from the nameless organization and its mind-controlling poets. What actually resides in Broken Hill is something so powerful it caused an entire town to destroy itself.

What is this war they are fighting? Wil & Emily are connected, but how? Who comes out the winner in this unknown battle?

I’ve owned a copy of this novel since it was released earlier this year. Admittedly, it’s been collecting dust on my virtual bookshelf since then. I found myself in a book funk, of sorts, after re-reading an absolutely outstanding novel (Oryx and Crake) and couldn’t find a book that would capture and keep my attention.  Then, for some reason, this novel called out to me. I clicked on the cover of the ebook and within minutes my attention was not only captured, but I found myself a victim of Barry’s writing. Like so many individuals in Lexicon, I found myself relinquishing my free will to the power of words, of language. But unlike those unfortunate victims in the novel, I didn’t inflict pain or leave a trail of victims behind. Instead, it forced me to reevaluate the power of the written (or spoken) word.

In Lexicon, words are as powerful as the deadliest of viruses. The general public fall victim to this, manipulated to do things using targeted advertising and politicized media.  I  won’t be able to take another random poll or quiz without wondering how the results will be used. The world Barry creates is tremendously inventive, a mind-altering novel that will keep you thinking long after you’ve turned the last pages.  There isn’t another novel like Lexicon. Never before has a novel elicited this sort of response in me. Without a doubt, this novel will top my favorites of not just 2013, but of my lifetime. Highly, highly recommended.

If words were weapons, which poet would you be? Take this quiz to find out.

 

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