Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Who Says Words Will Never Hurt You?

by Max Barry
Published by
3 1/2 Stars

Are you a cat or a dog person?

In the world of Lexicon, your answer reveals everything they need to know about you.  Who are "they"?  They are the poets, people who are hardwired to resist persuasion and to use language as a weapon against the rest of us.  Studying linguistics, personality and psychology, poets have the ability to subvert free will and compel us do as they wish.  The most powerful poets are given pseudonyms that appropriately demonstrate their mastery over language and, thus, over society:  T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, W. B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf.

Lexicon tells the story of Emily Ruff, a homeless teenage grifter who shows promise as a poet, and Wil Parke, a man who unknowingly survived an apocalyptic event in Broken Hill, Australia.  As Emily is recruited by the poets and sent to an exclusive school to cultivate her gifts, Wil is on the run from would be assassins for reasons unknown.  As their stories intertwine, Barry explores the power of words and the sway they hold over us.

Lexicon is a clever exploration of modern society.  In our media saturated culture, we are surrounded by words from a variety of sources, most of whom have a vested interest in persuading us to adopt their viewpoint or engage in action that is beneficial to them.  What are politicians, corporations, pundits, and advertising executives if not "poets"?  And, more often than not, they succeed in manipulating and coercing the American public.  There is so much spin that it's often hard to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins--even more chilling is that many people don't even care, content to let the bias of others "think" for them.

While I enjoyed the premise of Lexicon and was certainly drawn in by Barry's fast-pace, the sense that it could have been more nagged at me.  Its premise is one that could lend itself to a more complex, nuanced examination of the ability of speech to influence, but Barry keeps it at surface level.  While Barry's intent seems to have been to write a fun, intelligent thriller, I would have readily signed on for something more substantial.  For example, the purpose of the poets and the intricacies of their organization is never revealed, and the specifics of how their influence works is given only a basic "nuts and bolts" explanation.

However, I was still set to give this a 4 star rating just for its inventiveness and the fun I had along the way, until the unsatisfying end.  No spoilers here--I'll only say that, for all the originality of the premise, the ending was underwhelming and predictable.