Confession: I was an English major for a very long time. I studied literature, linguistics, French Latin, a little bit of Attic Greek, rhetoric, all of the things a good English major should study. I like clever things and clever books, especially when those books happen to be about words or English or literature (and yes, I am a Doctor Who fan). Imagine how hungrily I put Lexicon on hold at my local library. How frequently I checked the hold list to see when I would get it. How I sped to the library when that wonderful day arrived. True lovers of books will have had this experience at some point in their lives, hopefully very often. We hear of a book and look it up to see if we’d liked it. Then we discover it’s about something we love and the anticipation expands exponentially until we start the first word on the first page. Some books live up to what we want them to be; many don’t. Max Barry’s Lexicon unfortunately falls into the latter category.
Its most basic premise is the power of words. To his credit, Barry manages to make interesting a world in which words have the amazing power to make us do things we don’t want to (otherwise known as consumerism). But this world takes it several steps farther: word-like strings of sounds can turn us into drones (known cutely as proles, a shortening of proselyte) willing to carry out the most dire of orders. However, there is less interest in exploring the logical conclusions of today’s consumer marketing and more interest in making this next year’s action blockbuster that manages to make audiences feel smart while indulging love of bullets and senseless “collateral damage”. There are explosions, car chases, shoot-outs, helicopters and an entire town full of dead bodies, which forms the central mystery and plot-hinge of the novel.
The pacing was fast, except for extended flashbacks, which take place in a narrative that moves backwards as well as forwards and alternates between two main characters. When you think you’ve reached the middle, where to the two narratives meet, it’s really just an extended flashback in the forward-moving narrative. All of this got a bit confusing and a few things just didn’t seem to make sense, but were hastily wrapped up at the end fairly anti-climactic end. The plot and premise are more compelling than the characters, however. Emily is believable, but not necessarily likeable, and Eliot (or rather T.S. Eliot, an alias given to him by the mysterious organization of word wielders & persuaders; the highest among them is Yeats) was far more interesting but much less understood and had less page time. I would have rather read about his mysterious life than Emily’s rather quick coming of age, which takes her from hustling the LA streets to becoming a ruthless killer and wielder of words.
There was so much potential for this story. A secret organization of powerful people, where the highest rank is Poet? A thriller where said poets are running around killing each other and turning people into word zombies? This is right up my alley! But it could have been both more compelling and clever than it really was. Even though it’s billed as an intelligent thriller that contemplates the power of words, it was really just a flimsy, action-packed entertainer about the power of love. I am so sick of that story. I am so sick of the idea that the love two people have for each other can save the world and all of humanity along with it, that humanity’s saving grace is the ability to love. I wanted the tower of Babel, I wanted the power of the gods in language. I wanted societal-shattering intrigue and consequences. But there was none of that. It’s really nothing more than a beach read for the psuedo-literary set. The irony, of course, is that I was tantalized enough by the words describing it to pick it up in the first place.