Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review of Lexicon by Max Barry

What are some standard tropes of fantasy? Wizards, incantations, duels of magic, schools for magic, numinous objects, farmboys with undiscovered powers, light romance, world traipsing adventures—they are on the list, right? And, what if we took this body of tropes and trotted them out dressed in the clothes of a 21st century conspiracy thriller? Why, we would have Max Barry’s 2013 Lexicon, wouldn’t we? Enough of the questions.

A secret organization known as the Poets scour the world’s cities looking for new members, all the while their Academy trains would-be members in the arts of personality recognition and neuro-lingual hacking. Yes, neuro-lingual hacking. By identifying a person’s personality type, poets are able to utter secret code words (handed down through generations, undoubtedly) matching said personality type to bring said person under their said control—a subservient automaton, as they say.

Happening in separate places and times, in the early going of Lexicon two characters are caught up in sticky situations with the Poets. An Australian man named Will who suffers from amnesia (simply a classic-classic fictional device, no?) is assaulted on the street one day by men who claim Will knows more than he remembers he knows. A gunfight and bizarre suicide the result, Will finds himself on the run with one of the men. A reticent guy who calls himself Eliot, he believes Will has secrets locked up in his brain that can save the world from total chaos. The two find themselves on a dangerous road trip to, of all places, Broken Hill, Australia. A few years earlier on the streets of San Francisco, a homeless teenage girl named Emily runs a three-card monte scam, earning a dollar here and a dollar their to just survive. A natural candidate for the Poets based on the manner in which she must read and incite her potential victims, it isn’t long before a Poet notices and recruits her to the Academy. Things not going as planned while studying, Emily learns a great deal—more than her professors teach her. But her “graduation” from the Academy comes much faster than the other students and lands her, in all places, Broken Hill, Australia.

As hinted at in the opening comparison to mainstream fantasy, Lexicon is not a deep novel. It earns its stripes in the manner in which Barry maintains suspense. The logic behind the Poets, the importance of Broken Hill, the knowledge Will has forgotten—all of these aspects and more are steadily peeled back as much as they are kept a finger’s breadth away from complete reveal. The prose is workaday and the neuro-lingual hacking premise is silly, but Barry stages his production, one scene building into the next, tantalizingly. With each page it became harder and harder to consider neuro-lingual hacking with any seriousness, but there is always an urge to keep reading to know the reasons—not something that can be said of every book. Want a thriller: mission accomplished.

It’s perhaps inevitable that Lexicon, with its idea that language can somehow be used to subconsciously control other people, is compared to Samuel Delany’s Babel-13. A novel with a similar premise, Delaney deploys it with a little more delicacy and sublety, however. Where Barry takes a no-nonsense approach, presenting semiotic control (har-har) directly, Delaney is more sophisticated, using a little linguistic experimentation and authorial sleight of hand to slip between the reader’s understanding of self-control and under-control. Delany does not drive his narrative with anywhere near the same intrigue, but does treat the idea of semiotics with a little more respect (read: realism).

In the Washington Post, Graham Sleight opens his review of Lexicon with the observation the book is essentially a one-note joke. And I can’t disagree. The idea people’s personalities can be categorized hermetically and that their brains can be hacked and taken over with the utterance of a few code words, really tests the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. Barry does a superb job pushing, and pushing, and pushing the suspense—both plot and logic—throughout the novel, truly driving it along. But for those unable to give in to wizardly spells in a contemporary urban setting, indeed the novel is nothing more than simple paranormal fantasy—wizards and magic dressed in conspiracy thriller clothes. See Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, starting with A Shadow in Summer, for an undisguised and quality rendering of poets as wizards.

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