Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lexicon (Max Barry)

Thanks to NetGalley for the eARC of this book and sorry once again for my inability to read a book before it has been published.

The most intriguing part of Max Barry's Lexicon is obviously the concept: there is a society of people called "poets" (they even take the names of famous poets) who have a hyperpersuasive way with words--they make a study of personality types that allows them to use special, secret words to coerce people (in the book's lexicon [did you catch my pun {OMG triple brackets}?], "compromise" them).

There are a few words, however, called "barewords", that are so powerful that they can affect all people, words that have, in the past, been so destructive that they appear in various mythologies (the most well-known being the Tower of Babel story). Emily Ruff, a street girl and former student of the Academy, unleashes a bareword on the town of Broken Hill, Australia and kills all 3,000 people with it. The book opens on the aftermath of this event, with a man named Eliot (yes, like T. S. Eliot) trying to kill Emily in order to stop her from further destroying the world with the help of Wil Parke, a man who is somehow immune to the persuasive arts.

Part of the difficulty in explaining this story is the way it's set up--there are two different timelines running at the same time, one preceding the other. The book opens with Wil and Eliot, post-destruction, but it alternates with the story of Emily's time in the Academy years before. The opening is actually quite confusing, dumping us into the story with little explanation. It sounds like a criticism, but it worked for me (I know that's not the case for some other readers)--I didn't mind working for an understanding of what was happening, but it certainly was work.

The Wil/Eliot timeline is pretty action-packed, coming off more like a screenplay for a desert thriller than a book. It's a very distinct flavor from the Emily sections, which are less about action and more about psychology. I was more interested in the Emily timeline because action is not so much my thing, and I found Emily to be an interesting, multidimensional creation for whom I empathized: when her heart breaks, mine breaks along with it; her happiness was my own.

The interlacing begins to get very confusing toward the end of the book as characters leave and return and leave and return again to Broken Hill--I struggled to piece together the events coherently as Emily's timeline got closer and closer to the beginning of the second timeline. In fact, the ending in general is a bit confusing--there was a lot happening as Barry tried to wrap the novel up and I had difficulty understanding exactly what was happening.

There is some lack of explanation, too, in the how department--Emily is forced to leave the Academy before she is fully trained, and we (like Emily) are deprived of an explanation of how the special coercion words work. It's never clear why Wil Parke is immune to this trickery or what the larger implications of such a thing are; all of these unexplained things are a bit of a disappointment because I was so invested in the world the author created that I did want to know.

But none of these things were so horrible that they stopped me from enjoying the book--I was so engaged by the concept and the characters (in particular, Emily and Yeats, the truly psychopathic villain figure of Lexicon) that I was willing to forgive. The writing style of the second timeline is very "pull-you-in", and despite the confusion I often felt in these parts, I was able to (eventually) understand them; I didn't face similar problems with Emily's sections, which I suspect is another reason I preferred them.

Nonetheless, the book manages to be an interesting character study and fascinating meditation on Big Themes like love and free will and control. It's a gripping creation, one that may have actually benefited from some extra length, which is something I rarely say. I suppose that's an indication of how interesting Barry's concept was, that I was looking for any excuse to extend my time in the world he created. I really, truly liked this book, but I can't say I loved it. I was too often confused.

My rating: 4/5
Lexicon on Goodreads
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