Tuesday, July 09, 2013

“Lexicon” by Max Barry (Mulholland Books)

BarryM-LexiconA superb new thriller, from the author of Jennifer Government

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “Poets,” and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.

Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card Monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. Drawn in to their strange world, which is populated by people named Brontë and Eliot, she learns their key rule: That every person can be classified by personality type, his mind segmented and ultimately unlocked by the skillful application of words. For this reason, she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy, until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an “Outlier,” immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organization and its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if ancient stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power.

I’m going to keep this review very short (for me). Lexicon is filled with twists, revelations, and a superb blending of timelines that makes it rather difficult to review sans spoilers. Needless to say, though, Lexicon is a thoroughly enjoyable, gripping and original thriller.

The novels starts with a kidnapping at an airport that is at once amusing, while also quite excellently, uncomfortably mirroring the drugged-nature and mindset of the victim, Wil. (A brave choice, to be sure, as it was a little weird…) Over the course of the novel, we follow Wil, as he has one brush with death after another – the plan of his kidnapper, Tom, goes to hell in a hand basket fast, so they form a weird kind of partnership (I won’t spoil why).

The narrative switches between Wil’s story and that of Emily. Emily, one of our primary protagonists, is great. She starts off as a huckster on the streets of San Francisco, scraping by on card tricks and scamming tourists and gullible locals alike. She is approached by some strange man in a suit, who seems to have a considerable power of suggestion… After passing a potentially-degrading test, she is taken to the school (mentioned in the synopsis, above), and we see her learn various aspects of what they can teach – advanced persuasion, if you will (or, linguistic manipulation, if we’re being a bit more honest). The school is run by an ancient secret society called the Poets, which uses words as weapons. Emily develops into their most gifted, and also troubled, member. Her story follows her rise within the school, and her education there. In her younger years, I was reminded of Veronica Mars, for some reason. I could totally see Kristen Bell playing her in a movie… I thought Barry handled her story arc, and development very well. There were plenty of endearing moments, and also heartbreaking moments.

As story progresses, these two threads inevitably join (not how I expected, but it happens about a third of the way in). Barry mixes up timelines without much signposting, but it works.

The author writes with a great prose style: it is inviting, engaging, extremely well-paced, and sprinkled with a fair few quips and funny asides, which only made me love the story and characters even more.

Overall, Lexicon is a superb thriller. It touches upon a number of modern questions of privacy, identity, and perhaps most importantly, the rising obsession of data-collection. Barry weaves these topics into a tapestry that also underlines the power of language and coercion. It is utterly engrossing, and brilliantly written.

Very highly recommended. Lexicon is easily one of my favourite reads of the year.

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