Novel: Lexicon by Max Barry

March 10, 2014

The scattershot manner in which I read Max Barry’s Lexicon (2013) – in short bursts, often with many days in between sessions – probably  undermined my appreciation of its artistry. It’s a testament to how well executed it is that I still came away highly impressed.

Lexicon literalizes the metaphor of language-as-power in a gonzo speculative thriller that spins multiple timelines. In one, there’s hapless Wil Parke, an innocent bystander who gets sucked into violent intrigue by a group of rogue agents who, for some reason, go by the names of famous poets. In another, past timeline, there’s the journey of young street huckster Emily Ruff, who draws the eye of a mysterious, clandestine organization who recruit her to their ranks based on her persuasive abilities. Alternating timelines and perspectives, the narrative unravels the mystery of Wil’s desperate predicament on the one hand, and builds the lore of the world on the other, by introducing and immersing Emily into its strange ways. Ultimately the timelines converge in a satisfying and explosive finale.

Wil’s chapters are full of wild action and eyeball kicks, but it’s Emily’s story that held that most appeal for me. Her weird journey, from the streets to a reclusive, secret school dedicated to the study of language, is an intriguing, cleverly escalating coming-of-age tale that spirals into a disastrous power struggle. The before-and-after structure deployed threatens to spoil plot surprise, but Barry subverts outward perceptions nicely to keep the reader unbalanced and involved. The time-jumping is occasionally disorienting, but also think that’s more on me than it is on the book; I just couldn’t find the time for a consistent reading rhythm. Under different circumstances I suspect I’d have zipped through it with even more pleasure. Even still, definitely recommended.

  • Fran Wilde March 10, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Though I read it almost a year ago, I’m still delighted when I see a friend has read it – so here I am, nodding along with you. The language and – yes totally agree – Emily’s story in particular, has a great, rich feel to it. Barry’s getting better with every book.

    ::spoiler comment below, warning::

    …. look …

    …. away…

    …. now …

    … fine ..

    … you’ve …

    …. been ….

    … warned …

    I think Barry does owe a nod to Stephenson’s glossolalia and linguistic brain-stem hacking from Snowcrash, but that doesn’t weaken the story for me one bit.

    • Chris East March 10, 2014 at 11:25 am

      You know, it’s been so long since I read Snowcrash I can’t even remember the connection…this is why I blog about everything now, my memory is terrible!

      This is only the second Barry book I’ve read. I liked Jennifer Government, but this seemed much stronger to me. He’s got a very distinct sensibility — his projects always look interesting!