Max Barry’s LEXICON was first published last year and received acclaim from sources as diverse as The New York Times, NPR, and Time Magazine. Now Penguin has reissued it as a trade paperback. So if you missed the first go-round, here’s your chance to experience this impressively inventive, disturbing, and thought-provoking thriller.
Wil Parke is suddenly and violently abducted from an airport by a group of strangers who claim they are rescuing him. But Wil knows nothing about his abductors, nor the group they claim mean to capture and imprison Wil.
Eventually Wil learns that he somehow survived a disaster that killed the entire population of a town called Broken Hill in Australia. Now Wil’s abductors want to send him back to Broken Hill to retrieve the source of the disaster — which the abductors claim is a word; a word that kills.
Emily Ruff is a homeless teenager living on the streets of San Francisco and earning quick cash playing three-card Monte. One day a stranger is impressed with Emily’s powers of persuasion and offers to send Emily to a school in the East for such specially gifted young people. Soon Emily finds herself living among a group of eccentric outsiders, much like her. At first the school doesn’t seem much different from any school Emily remembers. Then, as her studies intensify, Emily discovers that she is being taught how words really work and how to use them to powerfully influence the people around her. She shows great promise and may soon join the ranks of the school’s highly skilled “Poets.” But then Emily makes a serious mistake that banishes her from the school and the Poets until she can prove she can be trusted with her acquired knowledge again.
The novel opens with Wil’s abduction in an explosive series of chases, gun-fire, and close calls. At first we are as confused as poor Wil about what is going on and why. Then Barry drops clues and references that are curious enough to keep us interested as we – and Wil – learn more about the circumstances.
These chapters alternate with those tracing Emily’s education. They are noticeably more calm than the events involving Wil, and at first seem completely unrelated. Then, as Emily advances in her study, we slowly find similarities to the skills she is mastering and the dangers Wil has survived and is enlisted to investigate.
At these moments, as we approach the middle of the novel, we come to understand and appreciate Barry’s ingenious and unanticipated narrative structure, and how the two seemingly unrelated story-lines converge.
But shortly thereafter, as Wil and Emily’s fate seem destined to connect, Barry introduces additional details that while intended to broaden the scope of the story risk confusing things beyond comprehension. Points effectively made by inference are suddenly overstated; new characters appear and then disappear instantly; and the identity of one important secondary character seems hopelessly confused.
Yet, as confusing and confounding as the narrative gets, we cannot tear ourselves away from the main thrust of the story and follow it through to its shocking and somewhat open-ended conclusion.
What we remember, not surprisingly, is our fascination with the hidden power of words and how Barry effectively incorporates elements of psychology, history, and linguistics to convince us and carry us along. This is in turn aided by his never less than credible main characters, his strong, often darkly toned prose style, and his convincing sense of place – especially when the location shifts to Barry’s familiar Australian settings.
LEXICON may not quite be the perfect, impossible-to-put-down thriller the promotional pages promise, but there is more than enough exciting, creative speculation and intriguing events to make it unique and even appealing to those who would otherwise avoid genre fiction.
So take full advantage of this reissue and allow yourself time to take it all in and possibly change the way you think about the words that surround and influence us with every passing moment. —Alan Cranis