Lexicon by Max Barry


” Words aren’t just sounds or shapes. They’re meaning. That’s what language is: a protocol for transferring meaning. When you learn English, you train your brain to react in a particular way to sounds. As it turns out, that protocol can be hacked.” – Part 2 Chapter 3 Page 169

In his book, Lexicon, Max Berry uses a relatively typical Sci-fi/Action plot line to convey his captivating perspective about the power of words. This book is definitely not what I expected it to be. I judged this book by it’s cover and picked it up for two reasons. (A) It was obviously about words and I have a fascination with word etymology etc. and (B) It was an NPR Best Book of the Year in 2013.

Being a big fan of NPR, I expected this to be a smartly written and somewhat educational book. It was certainly smartly written, but it was also much more violent than what I predicted. Lexicon would easily fit into the same genre with such movies as The Terminator, or Lucy (that Scarlett Johansson movie where the chick accidently has a drug released into her blood stream that basically turns her into a computer, and she proceeds to kick ass and take names.)

Barry has an interesting writing style. The book isn’t written in chronological order. He alternates chapters mainly between the two main characters of the story. Then, through a complicated web of backstories and changes in timeline, Barry weaves his tale into one very well thought out work. I won’t say that it was initially easy to follow. Though, once things do start making sense, the plot line becomes a little predictable.

While I felt like the characters were developed well, they tended to be a little stereotypical. First there is Emily, the young girl living on the streets who is taken in and trained by the big secret organization. Then SURPRISE the big secret organization molds her into what they want her to be and manipulates her into doing terrible things. She then rebels against the organization that used her so flagrantly. The reader is introduced to Wil, the seemingly naïve uninvolved civilian who gets caught in the crossfire.

Then you have Elliot, the once operative of the big secret organization who sees the corruption and goes rouge. And no good Action/Thriller would be complete without the corrupt leader of the big secret organization who wears fancy suits and obsesses over his Italian leather shoes. That’s where Yeats comes into play. The following excerpt gives you a glimpse into his diabolical personality:

  “I have been visiting delegates. Not all of them agree with my new direction for the organization. Some tried to move against me. Expected, of course. Futile, since I understand them We attempt to conceal ourselves, Emily, but the truth is we do not entirely want to be concealed. We want to be found. Every poet, sooner or later, discovers this: that within perfect walls, there is nothing worth protecting. There is, in fact, nothing. And so we exchange privacy for intimacy. We gamble with it, hoping that by exposing ourselves, someone will find a way in. This is why the human animal will always be vulnerable: because it wants to be. “ = Part 3 Chapter 4  Page 377

Barry puts his own spin on the standard aspects of his chosen genre. The operatives of this secret organization are called Poets. Upon completion of their training, they leave behind the names they were given at birth and take on the names of famous poets. For example, the headmistress at their school goes by Charlotte Bronte. At this school, operatives are taught to become perspective. They are taught to pick up the personality cues of those they interact with and categorize individuals into classes. These classes determine which words might hold the most power over a person.

“The fact was, if you paid attention, people tried to persuade one another all the time.” – Chapter 6 Page 91

I have a tendency with this genre to skim what I read. I will finish the book knowing what went on in the story, but rarely do I get every word. Here is where I found the true brilliance in Barry’s writing. The way he writes forces you to slow down and mull over the things he has to say, voicing those thoughts in a genre that typically isn’t designed to make the reader meditate and ponder. Barry uses this fiction novel as his platform to say that words can be a powerful source for good or evil.

Like the proverbial saying “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

To conclude, I am including my favorite excerpt from this book. Here Barry makes a beautiful point about human interaction and personality. When we develop friendships we allow the other person to have pieces of our personality. The more we give them of ourselves, the more we knowingly (or sometimes unknowingly) take on a certain amount of venerability. When we trust someone with our friendship, we are giving them those little parts of ourselves and deciding that we don’t mind if they have them. Notice how cleverly Barry illustrates this:

  ” She pulled down a tome with an alluring title, The Linguistics of Magic, … It was a history lesson about how people had once believed in literal magic, in wizards and witches and spells. They wouldn’t tell strangers their true name, in case the stranger was a sorcerer, because once a sorcerer knew you, he could put you under his power.

 …as the book moved through to modern day, nothing changed. People still fell to the influence of persuasion techniques, especially when they broadcast information about themselves that allowed identification of their personality type – their true name.”

Part 1 Chapter 6 Page 100

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