Imagine a society in which everyone can be categorised as a particular type and certain words can be used to control that type, hacking into the brain, forcing one’s actions. In the wrong hands (or mouths), these words would give organisations and individuals complete dominance, with the power to cause great harm. And what if there were other words, barewords, hidden or lost with the potential to be found, which could control everybody, regardless of their personality type?
This is the intriguing premise of Lexicon by Max Barry. It tells the story of a secret school that trains youngsters in the use of archaic words – or mind control – and then releases them into the world as Poets, re-named after the greats, such as Yeats, Bronte, Woolf. The novel opens in the wake of a terrible tragedy at Broken Hill, Australian, which has left thousands dead, all killed by the use of a bareword. A Poet has gone rogue. The others must locate this Poet while also searching out an Outlier, that rare person who is immune to the power of the word.
Lexicon is an addictive thriller, full of puzzles, aliases and shifting timelines. Scattered throughout are moments, completely out of the blue, that shock. We follow the stories of different individuals, in the school and in the outside world, and keeping track of them is not always easy. There is also fascinating discussion of the ‘science’ behind the power of these words to alter the brain, as well as frequent examples. The constant reminders of the world’s great poets adds another layer to this novel about words, their misuse and their force. It all conveys an impression of being very clever.
While I did enjoy Lexicon I did have problems with it. Chief among these is the sense it gave me that its structure was designed to confuse. Moving around between different timelines, with the minimum of direction for the reader, it became harder and harder for me to keep close to the characters and their stories. It’s harder to identify with characters when for much of the time it’s difficult to tell who they are. Of course, the intention might be that you’re not supposed to identify with anyone here, especially those who hide behind the names of poets, but the structure did mar my enjoyment. Whether this style appeals is very much down to the reader. I did like, though, the fluidity between good and bad in certain characters.
Possibly more important are the flaws in some of the characters, especially the cardboard cutout baddie and the lack of integrity in the personality of the main male figure. There are also plotholes. But the leading female character, by contrast, is rarely less than fascinating from start to finish and is the main appeal of the novel for me.
Lexicon is a smart and intriguing thriller that has left an impression on me. Despite its flaws, it’s a novel that’s well worth reading.