A wise teacher once told me that every story, no matter its genre, is actually a love story. I couldn’t help but recall her words after reading Max Barry’s newest novel, “Lexicon.” Technically, it’s a sci-fi thriller about the physical power of language and the people who wield that power. Technically, it’s a high-tech version of a word-lover’s nightmare. Technically. I don’t want to give away too much because you’ll want to read this thriller in one or two poolside sittings — with an exotic/poetic drink such as a June Bug or an Electric Lemonade in hand — but, yes, “Lexicon” is actually a love story at its core.
Because I’m a real sucker for words — I love the way language plays off the tongue — “Lexicon’s” premise had me from the get-go. What if a phrase, based on a person’s personality type, could bypass our brain’s decision-making apparatus and force us to do someone else’s bidding? What if there are people right now studying language, linguistics, personality types, neuroscience and a little bit of mysticism for good luck, who are trying to unlock the linguistic code to world domination?
These questions are at the center of Barry’s story, but they’re not its heart. “Lexicon” is the story of Emily Ruff, a resourceful runaway recruited from the San Francisco streets by a secret society of “poets” to attend an exclusive school where she studies the subtleties of language to eventually manipulate minds. Problem is, Emily isn’t your typical recruit — she’s headstrong and does things her own way — or so she thinks until she comes across a word with the power to fracture the world, harkening back to what Barry calls “Tower of Babel events.” There’s another storyline, too, that of Wil Parke, an outlier with no memory of his past who’s impervious to manipulation. But I’m going to leave Wil’s story a surprise.
As with any good thriller, things go terribly awry for Emily, who is eventually dubbed Woolf (as in Virginia Woolf — everyone in the organization is renamed after a famous writer), and she finds herself banished to Broken Hill, Australia, a remote mining town in the middle of the desert where she falls in love … and eventually nearly destroys the world.
I’ll warn you: The first 30 or so pages of “Lexicon” may induce whiplash as it cuts between seemingly unrelated, at times violent, storylines. Give it a minute. I soon became enthralled by the world Barry creates, how he weaves the book’s disparate parts into a treatise on the nature of human connection: A word with the power to destroy can never really break our most intimate bonds.
— Alexis Orgera
“Lexicon” is available at Bookstore1, 1359 Main St., Sarasota. Call 365-7900.
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