"Here we go, hey-o, diddle diddle!"
This is a book which I slightly mixed feelings about when I finished; I enjoyed the read, definitely, but felt when I finished it that I had to leave it for a while before reviewing it, because there was something about it overall that nagged at me a bit.
The book has a fascinating premise; straight into the action, we read of Wil Parke, ambushed in an airport bathroom and brutally kidnapped by men he doesn't know for reasons he has no idea about; then we skip to the life of Emily Ruff, street-smart and ready for a new adventure when one offers itself to her. It took me a bit of the way into the book to realise that Emily's narration was chronologically a lot earlier than Wil's, which was a bit unnecessarily confusing, and could have been cleared up by dates at the chapter headings just to clarify that. I liked the concepts that were thrown up in this book, and I liked the character of Wil, but I really didn't care for Emily at all, so found it a bit harder to feel empathy for what her character was going through.
There are very clever and pertinent observations on the modern society and its fascination with digital knowledge, and with conspiracy theories. The manipulation of knowledge and its ethical connotations is signposted, but I would have liked to have seen more made of this, as of the society of `poets' and their involvement in world affairs.
The first half or so of the book we see things very much from the `narrow' perspective - that of Wil and Emily (and a little of Elliott).. In the later part of the book, the action broadens to take in the `wider' perspective - that of the `poets' and Yeats' actions in particular. But what stopped this being a total success for me was that we never really got to `see' more of the wider perspective, and so missed some of the nuances I'm sure the author had in mind for his broader character base.
This is a great book; I think what nagged at me and stopped me from giving it five stars is that while it was a well-put together, sharp book, sometimes it was almost a little bit too sharp for its own good. I definitely will look out for more of the author's works; there are clearly great novels waiting to get out from in his head - innovative, original and definitely modern narratives.
Wow! What a book! This guy can write! Even though I had no clue at all what was going on in the beginning I was sucked in and gripped from the very first page. The story is completely unbelievable and yet I believed every single word. It's genius! It's scary how easily something so far fetched can be plausible but that's exactly what I felt...scarily plausible.
Words are powerful, we all know that but in this book powerful words take on a whole new meaning. It's really hard to say why or how I liked this without giving huge plot spoilers but I'd hate to ruin such a terrific book for any new readers so I won't go there. What I can say though, is that I urge everyone to at least give this one a whirl and try it out. It's really hard to pinpoint a genre as I've not come across anything like it before but 'Thriller' probably comes closest...maybe...I think. It's sooo much more though. This would definitely make a fantastic movie and I'd go to see it in a heartbeat! Try not to read any spoilers for this before you go into it as I think it was the complete mystery surrounding everything that made it so exciting for me. I enjoyed it so much more not knowing what was coming next as I hurtled at breakneck speed though it. It's better to find out what's going on as the characters find out.
on 15 August 2013
An elite underground organisation devoted to training super spy's who are able to control people's actions through words alone - sound far fetched? Yes and no. As I thought more and more about this book it's hard not to look back on the films that made me laugh or cry; the books that kept me up all night reading; the joy as the women I love turned to me and said 'I do'. And what was behind all these emotions, what caused the palm sweating, heart fluttering emotions? Words. Spoken or read. The same things that religions are built upon, politicians wield and have driven so many people to so many atrocities over the years. Words really are powerful and can influence each and every one of us at the most base level. So all of a sudden, this concept, this book, didn't seem as far-fetched as I originally thought.
And that's the crux of it really. Lexicon is an out and out thriller. A non-stop, roller coaster chase across the globe. There's guns, girls, guys and there may even be a kangaroo in there somewhere. But actually, it's a bit more. There's something beyond the thrills: an intelligence, a thought, a concept that niggles away and stays with you after the pages close (or power button switches off if you're so inclined). The closest analogy I can give it is a Chris Nolan movie. You know it's a Hollywood blockbuster summer movie, its exciting, thrilling and squeezes you to the edge of your seat. But most importantly it makes you think. Not just during it, but that night, the next day, the next week, your still looking and wondering how he did it. That's how I feel about this book and that's why I'm writing about it now. With words. Hoping to influence you to buy this book. Read it. Then remember this review and the power of words to influence us all.....
"Remember death and life are in the power of the tongue" .That quote from Joel Osteen is especially pertinent given that in Max Barry's Lexicon words are as powerful as the most devastating weapon. They can wipe out an entire town so....Max Barry introduces us to a world that exists away from the norms of the rest of us. . A world where a elite group of people have honed the power of words. They are "Poets" and they can influence and manipulate people based on their personality type. They recruit those that have a gift with words, or can influence those around them and they are sent to study at an exclusive school where they study all aspects of language and its power.
Emily is one of those recruits but she would , if she were in a normal school , be a problem pupil. Taken off the street where her canny sleight of hand and clever wordplay were letting her grift for money she is overwhelmed by the academic side of the school but shows remarkable adaptive and nefarious talents to get around this. Words are powerful she learns, more powerful than she would ever had believed.
Now one of these "Poets" has discovered an ancient word. A word that has destroyed different civilisations for thousands of years. The word has wiped out the town of Broken Hill in Australia. One single word and three thousand people are dead. But one man escaped it seems. He is immune to the word. Which makes him very dangerous too. Depending on whose point of view you take.
Lexicon is basically a thriller but anyone who has read any of Max Barry's books before will know that there is always a serious underlying satirical message behind the story. The author makes salient points about social media , Government manipulation of our personal data, media misinformation and how the authorities exploit situations to chip away basic freedoms. The end of chapter point caveats about this are actually the most interesting part of the novel.
As for the thriller, well it starts out quite brilliantly and the first two thirds of the book are terrific. Once the action moves to Broken Hill it becomes less coherent , more amorphous and less absorbing. If I were being really harsh I would say it loses the plot. It is like the author knew where he wanted to go but was not sure what to do once he got there. His characters mirror that.
It is good to know Max Barry is now on the radar of film makers. Previous novel "Syrup" is "Soon to be a major film" so says the book blurb and this book has been optioned . Lexicon is not his best work though. Anyone wanting to read the author at his finest should read the aforementioned " Syrup ", or the excellent "Jennifer Government".
on 12 September 2013
This book was a really exciting read. Few books have ever pulled me into the story as much as this one. The main characters engaged me immediately - I found that I cared what happened to them from very early on in the story. The pace never flagged, only easing up fractionally at the very end. The main concept, that words have a power and can alter the mind of those hearing or reading them seems to me to be self-evidently proven by this book itself. I've certainly never felt fear at the thought of a poet until now! This is the first book I have read by Max Barry and it has propelled its author straight onto my "must read" list.
Lexicon leaps off the page in the opening chapter, grabs you by the brain stem and compels you, wide-eyed and heart-racing, to experience one of the best action sequences it's ever been my pleasure to read. Thankfully, the pace slows down as the plot unfolds, otherwise I'd've had a coronary before hitting halfway...
Lexicon blends a nifty core concept, that people can be manipulated by language and some scary specific words suited to their personality, with some of the favourite themes of psy-thrillers and paranormal fantasy. So a spiky street kid demonstrates a special aptitude and is admitted to a strange kind of academy to learn weird skills - not unlike the plot of The Magicians.
But Lexicon gets darker faster than The Magician series, and the plot is told in flashback format, disguising the developments so that the twists catch you unawares. It has a similar feel to some of Michael Crichton's early novels - believable psy-sci advances, a fast-paced plot and a world-killing weapon - but establishes a distinct and enjoyable style and cast of intriguing characters. The heroine (well, sort-of) particularly stands out as a 'proper person'. She is sassy and good company, but she's also insecure, devious, courageous, victorious and defeated - all at once. The supporting cast are similarly well-defined and frequently ambiguous, so it's kinda tricky to tell where the boundaries of 'good' and 'bad' overlap.
I also really enjoyed that the action is split between the USA and Australia -- the trek through the scorching outback is brilliantly written. My mouth dried out just reading it.
The interludes which pop up between the narrative give you a bit of breathing space - but they also highlight just how easy it is to manipulate people using net-tech and websites which already exist. There's a chilling suggestion that the possible future suggested in Lexicon is already with us. To balance that, the underlying message of Lexicon is essentially about the nature of love. And trust.
You can read it on either level, or both. A non-stop romp, or a deeper commentary on modern society. Either way - top notch. If not entirely original...
on 10 July 2013
I was intrigued by the fascinating premise of this (?science fiction) novel in which a cabal of elite, highly trained 'poets' exploit the rest of us solely by their expertly honed powers of persuasion. This has been a point of controversy since the invention of democracy and the inevitable (but regrettable?) emergence in C5th BC Athens of the professional politician ...
In fact the novel quickly becomes a (most effective and enjoyable) story, but one often told before, of a secret society whose increasingly deranged leader bids for the modern equivalent of world domination (in fact the creation of a permanent mark on human history).
The narrative technique of starting sections or chapters with interactions between anonymous characters can be irritating, but I can get over it (it's not unusual, after all); but when the author plays the same game with time and place as well ... it can be difficult to know what's going on for a page or two at a time, which is terribly clever, no doubt exactly what he's after etc. etc., but nevertheless pretty annoying.
Rather disappointingly, too, the poets' unbeatable powers of persuasion, the invincible rhetoric I wanted to see at work from the elite super-sophists of the modern world, this all boils down, frankly, to magic words. To be fair, Abracadabra isn't one of them - but it might as well have been.
Add to this the concept of the 'bareword', the distillation of verbal manipulation so powerful that, basically, we have Perseus wielding the Gorgon's head, and one is reminded, in more irreverent moments, of Monty Python's 'funniest joke in the world' sketch ... we now begin to enter an incredible realm, I think.
There are some really good ideas, like the fact that, at bottom, everything everyone ever says is a form of persuasion; that the key to persuasion is knowledge and understanding of people's characters or personalities; that the key to avoiding such persuasion is the self disciplined refusal to reveal oneself in any form of self expression, including desire in any form ... so what a shame the whole thing ends up as basically a big shoot 'em up.
Samuel Beckett (persuasively?) said that 'Words are all we have', but Barry shows how not everything is verbal expression, for, rather sweetly, the antidote to all the above shenanigans is love, which, as of course the ancients knew, conquers all.
So, when all's said and done: a flawed masterpiece?
on 2 May 2016
Like another reviewer, I couldn't immediately make my mind up about how I felt about this book after I'd finished it. I thought I needed a couple of days of reflection before I finally rated it.
The synopsis of Lexicon has been explained rather well in a number of reviews, so I'll just briefly give my take on this high-concept thriller by Max Barry. Although it has science fiction elements to it, the story is set in the present-day and, on the surface, the world pretty much operates as it does in real-life. However, beneath this perceived normality there lurks a shadowy organisation. It comprises folk who are able to conjure up superhuman persuasive powers via their use of words. These abilities can be used to subvert free will and compel law-abiding citizens to actually carry out foul deeds - even kill. The individuals who are capable of these manipulations are known as 'poets' - each one given a code name that relates to an actual dead poet. Their 'skills' are learned at an exclusive school which is located on the fringes of Washington DC. As our American friends would say "enough already" - yep, that's as much of the plot as I think I need to divulge.
The author obviously has an amazing imagination and has come up with some really interesting concepts which I thought he explained very well throughout the narrative. For two hundred or so pages I was totally captivated by this intriguing story and was excited about where the diverging plots were going to take me. At this stage in the proceedings, I was already primed for giving Lexicon a solid 5 star rating and thinking to myself that this could be my favourite book of 2016. So, it was a shame that, for me, the second half of the book didn't live up to its initial promise. It was as though the author had all these great ideas but then ultimately didn't know how to bring them all together in order to provide the reader with a cohesive, satisfactory conclusion. That said, this was a fun ride and I liked Max Berry's inventiveness and would still like to read further works by him. I'm going to give this one 4 stars because, regardless of certain reservations, it's a book that has left a positive, lasting impression on me.
on 23 February 2016
Max Barry isn't the first writer of recent vintage who has opted to create a work of speculative fiction devoted to the destructive power of words; Ben Marcus' "The Flame Alphabet" is a notable, and perhaps, better, example. With "Lexicon", Barry offers readers a spellbinding alternate history work that will remind readers of a cross between a young Neal Stephenson ("Zodiac", "Snow Crash") and Elmore Leonard ("Get Shorty"), that, is truly, to quote Time magazine media critic and author Lev Grossman, a work that is almost the "perfect cerebral thriller: searingly smart, ridiculously funny, and fast as hell". Indeed, "Lexicon" is especially noteworthy for its intricate, rather suspenseful, plotting, though exhibiting far less sophistication than anything I have read from the likes of Graham Greene, John Le Carre or China Mieville, but still displaying more than enough to keep readers in suspense until the very end. To his credit, Barry offers readers a novel that is almost as compelling a novel of ideas, as it is of fast-paced action; however, his level of sophistication, especially with regards to his world building of the "poets" and their secret history, pales in comparison with the best I have seen from the likes of Neal Stephenson ("The Diamond Age", "Anathem"), China Mieville ("The City and the City", "Kraken", "Embassytown"), Paolo Bacigalupi ("The Wind-up Girl"), Matt Ruff ("Bad Monkeys", "The Mirage") and William Gibson ("Neuromancer", "Count Zero", "Idoru"), to name but a few. In plain English, "Lexicon" is far more enjoyable as entertainment than for thoughtfully exploring "language, power, identity, and our capacity to love, whatever the cost" (to quote from the concluding sentence of the book jacket copy); it should not be compared favorably with the notable works I have cited from the likes of Bacigalupi, Gibson, Stephenson, and especially, Mieville and Ruff.
Barry introduces us to an alternate version of the present; one dominated by a secret society of "poets"; men and women who have been trained in the art of literary manipulation to such a degree that they can use their knowledge to manipulate others, causing injuries and deaths. A young orphan, Emily Ruff, rescued from the streets of San Francisco, becomes the prize pupil at the poets' suburban Virginian private school, until she allows herself to fall in love; a cardinal sin of the poets that is prohibited simply because expressing such an emotion would leave one vulnerable to manipulation. Wil, a man without a past, becomes a pawn in a bitter, deadly, civil war between rival factions of the poets; a civil war that knows no national boundaries and results in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. The fate of the poets - and of the world itself - rests on the acts committed by Emily and Wil as they draw closer to each other, setting the stage for a potential apocalypse; their separate treks will keep readers spellbound until the very end. For these reasons - and despite its flaws - "Lexicon" may be one of the most discussed new novels being read this year.
(Reposted from my 2013 Amazon USA review)
Max Barry is an ideas man. He has previously written of a kind of government/corporate interface full of conspiracies and rules. His works have a Brave New World feel to them.
In Lexicon, we find a society where people fall, unknown to themselves, into various categories of personality, each persuadable through the use of keywords that bypass the critical thinking parts of the brain and get straight into the core. Sort of. Max Barry explains it better.
From a bizarre opening, we rapidly fall into a Men In Black/Bourne Identity type world where a small group of people control the world through access to secrets. They also have access to unlimited wealth allowing world travel in first class, swanky offices and labyrinths of laboratories staffed by technicians who have no idea of the significance of what they are working on. Those inductees into this glamorous, dangerous world carry the names of semi-famous poets.
The novel is divided into four sections, each addressing a quite distinct episode, place and time period. The first three work well and hold the ideas together. We find two opposing storylines, one featuring Tom and Wil, strangers who are thrown together to defeat the greater evil. And the other featuring Emily, a street scammer who is inducted into the organisation. The stories converge – after a fashion – in Broken Hill, a remote mining town in New South Wales. The true awfulness of Broken Hill – previously seen in Priscilla Queen of the Desert – is conveyed well and there is plenty of intrigue in terms of what happened and what will happen. The story, you see, is quite non-linear. As the story lines develop, so too does the reader’s understanding of the science-fiction behind the words of persuasion. The gaps get filled in.
And Lexicon poses interesting questions about the nature of communication and language. It also makes one wonder whether anything can have value if it can be had simply by asking. These questions are highlighted further in snippets of e-mails, news reports and reference sources (presumably all fictitious) that bookend the chapters.
Sadly, Lexicon unravels in the fourth section and descends into a wide-ranging, chaotic riot – everyone shooting each other and being evil or heroic for no obvious reason. It’s a poor way to end a book that is more reminiscent of Police Academy than the Bourne films. But this shouldn’t detract too much from the really excellent build-up. Ending books can be tricky and it does seem to be a skill that Max Barry does not have, but the endings seldom linger long in the memory anyway. Readers tend to remember scenes in the build up. So, on balance, a rather generous four stars.