Thursday, May 01, 2014

Lexicon, by Max Barry

Max Barry
Penguin: 2013

I first heard of Max Barry back in 2013 when he published Jennifer Government and part of the publicity was this Nation States game that I played for a while, though I never quite got around to reading the book. But, Lexicon was selected as the May selection for Books and Bars, the book club I regularly attend. It was an excellent choice, and should let to a great conversation.

Lexicon has a fascinating premise: What if humans can be decoded and commanded like computers?  If, depending on personality type, there is a set of root command words that if spoken, will reset (to a point) a person's brain and allow the speaker to tell that person what to do and that command will be obeyed.  Throughout the course of the novel, readers see examples of this from something as silly as standing on one foot and hopping all the way up to forcing someone to kill.

Max Barry has two alternating storylines: That of Wil Parke being assaulted in an airport and going on the run to escape people that he doesn't know from kidnapping him for reasons he also doesn't know, and of Emily Ruff, a teenager living on the streets and conning people out of their money by running card games.  Emily is recruited into an organization that trains people to use those command words to control people, though she doesn't know why.  Wil is simply trying to stay alive and figure out why he was being attacked at all, and why a man named Eliot is helping him. 

Of course the two stories are connected, it would likely be a fairly crappy novel if they remained independent the entire time. How they connect is important, and there are a couple of references early on that suggest in just what way they connect. Depending on when readers pick up on the true connection (and it isn't simply the organization of "poets" that can control people), there may be more of an interest in figuring out how the characters got to those points before the author actually gets them there.

Conceptually, this is a friggin cool novel. It is also a very well executed and fast paced novel that keeps the reader looking for and wanting more.  I don't know if this should be properly called a techno-thriller or a biblio-thriller or what, exactly, but whatever it is, it is a good one. 

Max Barry continually mixes up the readers expectations for who these characters are and what their motivations might be, as well as flipping the script on what is about to happen next. The reader is always on edge, not quite knowing what to expect. It's damn effective and very well done. How the novel touches on and connects to mythology (babel events) is fascinating, and it's part of how Barry weaves the ability of the "poets" into a historical context that further grounds the story in a shadow conspiracy of realism, and once again, it works fabulously.

The end result here is that I should read more Max Barry.  Also, I can't wait for the next Books and Bars to see what people have to say about this book.

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