Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lexicon: Words Rule the World!

Here's an idea: What if words — everyday words, yes, but also special, exclusive-to-a-few words — were more powerful than even the most powerful weapon? What if they could be used, quite literally, AS a weapon to try to rule the world? Seems like a bit of a pander to book nerds, doesn't it? Of course, yes. But in Lexicon, Australian novelist Max Barry pulls off this premise with alacrity, wit, and no shortage of thrills.

Emily Ruff is a precocious 16-year-old San Franciscan living on the street, earning money from cheating on magic tricks, when she's recruited for an exclusive east coast boarding school where she slowly learns the art of persuasion. Graduates of this school are called poets, and are given names of other poets like Eliot, Yeats, and Woolf, commiserate with their ability. She learns about the 220 categories of personalities in which every person fits, how to quickly identify a person's category, and then, how to use particular words to persuade. But when tragedy strikes at the school, she's banished to a small town in Australia called Broken Hill where she spends several years in exile waiting for permission to return. But soon, she repeats a past mistake — committing the ultimate sin of the ultra-logical school in which she's supposed to be loyal: She falls in love.

Meanwhile, a dude named Wil is kidnapped at the airport in Portland, and survives a violent scene. He and mysterious fellow named Eliot begin a mysterious cross-country roadtrip, where Wil is constantly under threat of being shot in the head. Eliot explains that he's kidnapped Wil because, evidently, Wil is the lone survivor of a disaster in a small Australian town called Broken Hill, and Eliot wants to know how. But Wil doesn't remember any of that, and thinks he's been confused with someone else. Who is Wil, really? How is he related to Emily's story (we know early on Broken Hill is part of the connection)? And just as importantly, who is Eliot, and what is he after?

Several strands of story in different times blend quickly together — it's a deft juggling act Barry pulls off to purposely disorient us. And admittedly, it's frustrating at times — because things happen with the presumption that you understand them, and so you think you may just have missed something. But you have to trust that Barry will explain what's confusing. He does, trust him. Everything makes sense eventually. It's just that through parts of the middle of the novel, you're not sure where you are in time — before or after events that have already been explained.

This is a quick, fun, genre-defying read. When I wasn't mad at it for confusing me on purpose, I really enjoyed it. And I was really relieved when everything started to make sense again, because I'd been afraid I'd totally missed something — or just didn't understand it. That feeling is the worst! But when everything does come together, I definitely applauded Barry for the inventiveness both of the premise and of the storytelling. Many other readers have as well — it landed on Book Riot's Best of 2013 list.


  1. Great review! I agree about the disorienting parts. I felt like I was thrown in the deep end until Barry handed out the life preservers. This was on my best books of 2013 as well and very interested to see what he does next!

  2. This has been on my TBR list for a while. It sounds amazing!