Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

August 15, 2013

Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Publication date: June 18, 2013
Publisher: Mulholland Books (Imprint of Hachette)
Genre: Thriller, Science Fiction
Source: Publisher

Amazon | Goodreads
At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics--at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as "poets" adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.

Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization's recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school's strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Bronte, Eliot, and Lowell--who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. 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 Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he's done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, he must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.

As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry's most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love--whatever the cost.
Okay, this book is officially one of the most brilliant books I've ever read!

The saying 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me' has been proved wrong innumerable times since it's utterance, but never so much as in this story.

If you could understand a language so well, study it in so much depth, that accompanied with only a skeletal understanding of a person, you would be able to make them do your will, would you do it? And while you're thinking of your answer, take a closer look at the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel; maybe there's something in there that we haven't properly understood.

With the recent battles over privacy and its invasion, it's been on a lot of our minds. Barry has taken it a bit further and written a book about the ultimate invasion of privacy: invading the human mind. The art of persuasion. The science of breaking into a mind, and making it your own. Classify a person's personality into one of 228 psychographic categories with a small number of well-directed questions plus observation, and then accordingly alter your angle of persuasion to one they will fall for.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?
What is your favourite colour?
Choose a number between 1 and 100.
Do you love your family?
Why did you do it?

Emily Ruff is a hustler. Alone and fending for herself at the age of sixteen, she makes do as well as she can, often ending her days in the city parks, crashing behind some bushes. And then, one day, after a hearty breakfast from a stranger, almost being victimized by said stranger, and mad dash across the city, she's selected to write the entrance exam at The Academy. If she passes, she'll be trained as a 'poet'; one who has mastered the art of persuasion, perfected and tailored to suit every type of person. Upon graduation, the students adopt the name of dead poets; the more talented you are deemed, the more famous your 'name' is. With the nature of the studies being what it is, the students are naturally forbidden to associate with one another. But just a year before she graduates, Emily commits one fatal mistake... She falls in love.

In an alternative narrative, we are told the story of Wil Jamieson, who is kidnapped from the airport toilet by two mysterious men who claim to want to save him from Woolf. They insist that he has valuable information with him, because of which 'poets' are behind him, and will ultimately kill him. Eliot (one of the two men), says that eighteen months ago Wil survived an event at Broken Hill, from which no one was supposed to  come out alive. This makes him an 'outlier' - one who is impervious to segmentation and persuasion. Wil, however, understands neither head, nor tale of anything that they say, and has no memory of any such thing. Nevertheless, he is forced to go by their instructions due to some facts that are undeniable, like the one that his girlfriend tried to run him over, minutes after the two men tell him that she wants to kill him. And so, they set off on a race to Broken Hill, to uncover the truth of what occurred in that little mining town eighteen months ago, to wipe it out of existence.

Max Barry has woven an intricately placed and paced tale in Lexicon. It appears that he is an author who spends precious little words in describing his characters. Instead, his characters reveal themselves to be who they are bit by little bit, spread throughout the book, so that even in the very last sentence (no kidding there, y'all) we uncover yet another facet of their personalities.

Emily endears herself to the reader as the underdog who claws her way to the top, through truth or tricks (she's not very particular; either works). I will not say that she is a lovable character. No, she is far from that, in fact. But there is something to appreciate in her bare honesty, desire for love and companionship, and her determination to survive even when she's left with zero resources. She's a go-getter, which is what makes her such a ruthless person; someone to be cautious of.

The parts with Wil are often a mixture of nail-biting anxiety and horrified humour. I cant say there's much growth in Wil's character (well, he does spend most of the book utterly clueless), but this is compensated for in the last third of the book, where this lacking is rendered moot by a drastic twist in the plot (and no, I'm not talking about Wil's death).

Eliot is not one of the main characters, but I cannot resist dedicating a small part of this review to him. I think, if I had to pick my favourite of all the characters in this story, it would be Eliot. His restrained manner contains so much behind it. Of all the poets', he's probably the one who feels the most. I loved how his roles varied over the course of the book - as Emily's mentor and saviour, as a true poet - efficient and unsympathetic, as a guide and guardian to Wil, as a lover, and as a man who has nothing more to lose, and hence has become fearless. It's brilliant!

Lexicon's plot is truly unique. It's effectiveness lies in it's believability. This book does not indulge in magic or sorcery, but uses the everyday, ordinary tool of words and turns it into a weapon. It does not take much to imagine such a situation, when it is based purely on psychology, language, and persuasiveness, which is why it is so chilling. Yeats and Woolf, the two head rogue poets are truly among the best villains I've ever read. Meticulous in their abilities, casual in their killings, emotionless in the face of practically anything, they send shivers up your spine and give you bad dreams at night. The book is interspersed with articles, forum posts, correspondence, survey forms, annexures, and web snippets about incidents and discussions that only add fuel to the increasing sense of paranoia.

It was only at the very end that the book hit a snag. I felt it was a bit sad that a book with the brilliance of Lexicon was reduced to 'Love conquers all'. An ending based more on the strengths of the human mind (or some such thing) would have been more suitable to a book of thiscaliber.

But when a book has so much in it to be admired and lingers in your mind a long time after you've read it (like this one), to hold something like this against it would be petty. So I wont. And after all, everyone loves a story with a happy ending.

Bottomline: Max Barry has come out with an original work of imagination, heretofore unheard of. A chilling, rapid, intriguing, paranoia inducing tale, that races to a blockbuster finish, Lexicon is perfect for Dan Brown fans.

His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading Aimlessly…..: Lexicon is a fascinating entry in this unique writer’s oeuvre. Max Barry always surprises and he always delivers.

GeekDad: If you’re in the mood for a brainy thriller, I’ve got four words for you: contrex helo siq rattrak. You should read Lexicon.

Mondy's Adventure: But for what’s essentially a thriller with slight Harry Potter overtones (especially on how words are use like magic spells to compromise people), this book has something to say about how in this internet age language is mightier than the sword.

Holding Quote:

- “Every story written is
marks upon a page
The same marks,
repeated, only
differently arranged”

- “To people at the top, the scariest thing is how many people there are below.” 

- “And, hey. You. Thanks for being the kind of person who likes to pick up a book. That's a genuinely great thing. I met a librarian recently who said she doesn't read because books are her job and when she goes home, she just wants to switch off. I think we can agree that that's as creepy as hell. Thank you for seeking out stories, the kind that take place in your brain.” (from Acknowledgments)  


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