If Max Barry asks you whether you’re a cat person or a dog person, you’ll want to change the subject. Trust me.
His latest novel, Lexicon, is a crazy action-packed adventure, but this time people aren’t just firing shotguns—they’re firing off their mouths, too. Now, this being a Max Barry novel, I’d say the less you know going into it the better: you can assume that it has something to do with words from the title, and if that’s enough for you, then go pick up a copy and enjoy the ride.
For those of you who need a little more to go on, keep reading—I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers, but some are inevitable.
As the book opens, we meet Wil Parke, a man in the unfortunate position of waking up to find himself half-drugged, being interrogated by two men asking the strangest of questions: Are you a cat person or a dog person? What’s your favorite color? Think of a number between one and a hundred. It’s clear that they’re not your standard textbook villains. But what they are doesn’t become clear for a little longer: Wil is important to them for some reason, and he quickly discovers that they aren’t the only ones after him either.
Next we meet Emily Ruff, a runaway who makes a little cash playing three-card monte in San Francisco. She gets approached by some strange people who throw her off her game, but she can’t quite explain why—and then they tell her she’s being tested, recruited.
This is what both Wil and Emily discover: there’s a secretive organization of people calling themselves “Poets” (and taking on names of famous poets) who have cracked the code of human language. The idea is that language, when a brain processes it and understands it, has a neurological effect on a person. The Poets have figured out ways to use words to hack into a mind, bypassing the mind’s usual filters and accessing deeper parts of the brain.
But the reason these two Poets have kidnapped Wil has something to do with Broken Hill, Australia, a town that had been wiped out and fenced off. The authorities claim it was some type of toxic leak, but the truth is something far more bizarre.
Max Barry has a knack for taking outlandish ideas and making them seem almost plausible—like you would have arrived at that conclusion yourself, given time and access to the right information. His last book, the serialized novel Machine Man, involved a guy who slowly replaced parts of himself with better, manufactured versions. Lexicon, which pulls references to the Tower of Babel and legends of wizards to Internet forums and misinformed media, makes you believe in the power of language. In that sense, Barry may be a bit of a Poet himself, taking over your mind with nothing more than words.
In between chapters, the book includes various snippets: forum posts, news reports, letters, and so on. This ephemera usually reports or comments on events that have taken place in the previous chapter but with slants the completely misconstrue what actually occurred. It’s fascinating to compare the two versions of events, and then wonder about the next story you hear about in the news—what are they leaving out?
At one point in the book, I thought I’d figured out where the book was headed—aha, I see these connections that Barry is hinting at, I told myself. But then I realized I was only coming up on the halfway point, and I had no idea what was coming in the second half. That’s such a refreshing feeling.
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.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book.