Lexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is not what I was expecting from Max Barry. When I requested this book off NetGalley, I expected some humor, quirky characters, some social commentary. But Barry has stepped up his game since Jennifer Government, and I was taken completely off-guard by the story I read.
The premise behind Lexicon is that language controls people. This goes beyond advertising buzzwords and political correctness, though it does reference those as being a watered-down version of this science. In this book, once you've been clearly identified as one of 208 distinct personality types, speaking a few nonsense words can hack into your conscious actions, and force you to do things you normally wouldn't.
Those who wield this weapon are called Poets, and they're named after famous deceased ones. They're trained at a highly competitive school, where students are discouraged from forming emotional attachments with one another, and everything they do is a test. It's not just to see if they're cut out for this world, though; it's just as much to pin down their personality types, so they can be brought in line.
Into this world comes Emily Ruff, a homeless grifter getting by on "Find the lady" scams. She's identified as a potential Poet, and brought into their school. Her ways are unorthodox, but she soon proves to be one of the strongest, and earns the suitably impressive code name of Virginia Woolf.
Meanwhile, Wil Parke is assaulted in an airport bathroom by men asking him what his favorite color is, whether he's a cat or a dog person, whether he gets along with his family, and why he did it. Wil's bafflement is our bafflement, because we don't have any of the above context for why this matters yet. Soon, he's dodging attempts on his life by his own girlfriend, getting shot at, and fleeing across the country with a man called Eliot.
Gradually, it becomes clear that this is a nonlinear narrative, and Emily's story is the context Wil lacks. Just in time for the reader to start rooting for Emily, the narrative threads meet.
If you think a book about the power of words sounds boring, think again. The explanations about this science are never longer than a paragraph or two, and often framed by a character who needs to know. The action surrounding the explanations is edge-of-your-seat stuff. I flew through the book, desperate both to know more about the Poets, and about what happens to Wil and Emily.
There's room for a sequel at the end of Lexicon, and yet I felt it was wrapped up nicely. Should Barry deign to write a sequel, I'll snatch it up, though I honestly don't know if he could do better than Lexicon. I don't know if any writer alive could.
I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley, with the agreement I would review it, and no further compensation. As the formatting was often wonky in the review copy, I will be picking up my own copy of this book. It has a high rereadability value.
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