Published by The Penguin Press HC on June 18th, 2013
At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets”: adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive.
Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school’s strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Brontë, Eliot, and Lowell—who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he’s done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated tow nof Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.
As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry’s most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love—whatever the cost.
It doesn't feel like it's been 10 years since I picked up a copy of Max Barry's JENNIFER GOVERNMENT on a whim at my local bookstore. I ended up finishing it later that day and Barry found his way to my must-read list. I tracked down a copy of his first novel (SYRUP) and greatly enjoyed COMPANY and MACHINE MAN (though that one was a little odd). So it was with some excitement that I started my ARC of LEXICON.
LEXICON is set in a world where trained poets can control what you feel and what you do by using certain words. This is the world in which Wil finds himself when he comes to in an airport bathroom with a needle stuck in his eye. Without a word of explanation two men force Wil out of the airport and on the run. And that's just in the first few pages.
As you can probably tell from the above, LEXICON starts off with a bang. After that opening chapter it switches over to Emily and jumps back in time about 10 years. She's a teenage con artist who (within a few pages) finds herself at the school that trains those poets I mentioned earlier. They teach her linguistics, psychology, political science, rhetoric and hone her already impressive persuasion skills to razor edge sharpness.
From there the book continues to jump between Wil and Emily (and back and forth in time) in an attempt to explain why everybody in the book is out to kill everybody else. While this format kind of works it constantly felt like I was reading a rough draft of the novel. Emily especially doesn't feel like she has much depth. With a little more time (or even splitting the Wil and Emily views in to separate books) I think this book could have lived up to its potential.
LEXICON is definitely a recommended read since a Max Barry novel is like ice cream; even when it isn't great it's still pretty damn good.