Lexicon by Max Barry
Let me start by saying that this novel has one of the most striking beginnings I’ve read in a long time. It’s horrifying and intriguing and fascinating all at the same time, and it dragged me in to the story immediately. As soon as I read page one I expected big and exciting things from Lexicon; and, for the most part, it did a great job in delivering them.
Lexicon is a bit of a mixed bag genre-wise: the general set-up and pacing marks it out as a thriller, but there are elements of dystopia and SF in there as well. I don’t often read thrillers, but I found that the plot here – namely the idea of a secret society of ‘poets’ using language to manipulate others – kept me hooked. The pacing is great, the characters are likeable enough, and the setting (Australia) is vivid and easily imagined. I also thought it clever how the author inserted fictional excerpts such as blog posts, emails and news articles, in between chapters: it really makes the idea of language manipulation within everyday society worryingly relevant.
The main point of the story is that a ‘bareword’ – a word so powerful that it overrides all impulses and counter-acts the poets’ regular manipulations of language – is stolen from the society, where it is then used to devastating effect against an entire town of people. Much of the novel flits about in time between the two central protagonists: their stories eventually begin to converge until we finally uncover the mystery of what really happened at Broken Hill.
The writer does a good job of building momentum throughout (although it does seem to stall a little, particularly at a point near the end where the story is drawn out into a needless final act). I also would have liked more details of the ‘magic’ words themselves, how they came to be found, and how the poets managed to acquire this particular word. The story suggests that a new ‘bareword’ is found roughly once every 800 years or so, and that the poets go hunting for them in areas of archaeological or geological significance. Since the words themselves supposedly originate with the Bible I think more historical details about how they were first acquired and used would have given the story an extra dimension.
Still, I had a lot of fun reading Lexicon, which is Max Barry’s fifth novel. I’ll definitely be checking out others by him in the future.