Lexicon – Max Barry
This is one of the titles that pinged on my radar while reading various posts from Sci-Fi November, a blogging event with the goal of celebrating various expressions of speculative fiction: while I had been aware of Lexicon‘s existence for a while, for some reason it had never fully crossed my attention threshold – which is a pity, because it was both an amazing discovery and a totally engrossing book.
The premise: certain words, apparently non-sensical words, have the power to influence people according to their psychological type, and render them open to suggestions. Any kind of suggestion, even those contrary to an individual’s survival instinct. In this terrifying scenario the author envisions a secret organization whose members are able to effect this kind of influence shaping society toward their goals: it’s a totally chilling background that works all too well with the awareness of publicity’s pressure on our everyday behavior and choices, and one that underlines how this kind of absolute power could be absolutely corrupting. The organization’s ruthless pursuit of this power is expressed quite clearly in a sentence that resonates all too well with our own way of living and made me wonder how much of this story can be safely labeled as a simple work of imagination:
Everyone’s making pages for themselves [….] It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.
We follow two story-lines, jumping back and forth between present and recent past: one of them concerns Wil Parke, a quite ordinary guy who finds himself in extraordinary and terrifying circumstances. The first time we meet him, he’s being assaulted in an airport bathroom by two individuals who submit him to a barrage of strange questions after inserting a needle in his eye. Wil’s total bewilderment and fear are quite understandable, more so when he’s told he’s the only survivor of a devastating incident that killed the whole population of the small Australian town of Broken Hill – something he has no knowledge or memory of. Little by little, the readers learn – together with clueless Wil – of the existence of a secret society able to exercise mind control on individuals through the use of specific words, wielded by expert “poets” who can manipulate people in this way. What makes Wil special is that he’s an “outlier”, i.e. someone who is capable of resisting a poet’s suggestion: this, and his connection to Broken Hill, have put his life in danger, and the hair-raising situations he find himself in – in turn aided, goaded and threatened by the poet calling himself Eliot – drive the very beginning of Lexicon, drawing the readers straight in and hooking them in no time at all.
The other main story thread concerns Emily Ruff: a sixteen-year-old runaway managing a hand-to-mouth existence through card tricks played in the streets of San Francisco. Her ability to persuade her marks to part with their money comes to the attention of a talent scout who convinces her to take a test that might gain her admission to the prestigious poet school. The former street urchin takes to the school’s program like a fish to water, and yet it’s impossible not to perceive that something is very wrong with the whole system, as Emily keeps pushing the boundaries with a persistence that is at the same time bold and self-destructive. Emily is an interesting combination of outward strength and inner frailties that endeared her to me despite her brittle, sometimes annoying approach: it’s clear that the organization that enrolled her manipulates its adepts just as much as it does the common man, and Emily’s response is to rebel against such pressure – she keeps doing that until her actions bring about a devastating consequence, one that condemns her to a few years’ exile to the remote town of Broken Hill. What happens there, the wanton slaughter covered as a toxic spill, comes about through the use of a bareword, an object so powerful that it can keep alive any kind of suggestion, affecting everyone who comes in contact with it. With hindsight, I wondered if Emily’s acts of rebellion and the choices she made were indeed her own choices, and not rather the product of some subtle manipulation whose goal was to bring her to Broken Hill to fulfill a role in what looks like a twisted experiment: we can see Emily struggle with her nature, and with the realization of her power, and the inescapability of it all contributes to make her a sympathetic, if tragic, figure.
Both storylines keep the book’s pace fast and riveting, building a constant momentum that’s also driven by the unusual progression of the narrative, since it keeps switching between time frames and therefore requires a tight focus. What constitutes the main strength of the novel is also at the basis of my disappointment at the ending, too abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying, if one takes into account what preceded it: I’m not a fan of long, convoluted explanations and I enjoy a book when it requires some hard work on my part, but this ending left too many unexplained details, too many unanswered questions to be totally rewarding, not to mention that it seems to reach for some predictability that, in my opinion, clashes with the story’s general mood.
Nevertheless, it was both an amazing discovery and a great read, one that I can recommend with absolute conviction.
My Rating: 8/10