Monday, December 9, 2013


           Okay, so the rundown is as follows*: Lexicon is not a great book, far from the best book of the year, but it's a solid read. The characters are fairly interesting, the darkly humorous tone carries the book a lot, and the pace keeps the reader moving even in the parts when the book flags. The bad bits come in with a mystery solved in cop-out, some confusing flashbacks that are not told in any conceivable order, and a surplus of plot elements that, while touched upon, are never fully discussed. 

                 In the end, while it's a dynamite book on its own terms and when put up against most of the literary canon to date, it's a disappointment from the man who wrote Syrup, Company, Man Machine, and Jennifer Government. Get this one from the library, enjoy it in the three or four days it'll take to read it, and then move on to better things. It's enjoyable, but I wouldn't buy it. More, as always, below.

                  The first time I was introduced to Max Barry, it was through a computer game. The library computers were exceptionally amicable to a browser-based nation simulator called NationStates. The game allowed you to create a nation and then choose how the government was going to rule it through a series of multiple-choice questions. It also allowed for minor roleplaying, though I never really got far into that. Forums at that time scared me. 

                    The game, such as it was, was in some way connected to a book titled Jennifer Government by the author Max Barry. This gave me pause, as I wondered if this was the same Max Barry who spelled his name "Maxx" on the cover of his novel Syrup. Syrup had always looked interesting, but not interesting enough to pick up. Jennifer Government had sounded like the usual unsubtle dystopic comedy at first, but then as I played the game, I started to wonder what in the name of all that was dear and fluffy the connection was. So I ILLed the book, and read Syrup while I waited. And thus began a long history of Max Barry. His books are an optimistic kind of dark comedy, the kind where the hero may lose in some way, but still winds up winning by just enough. And he makes it believable, too. By only squeaking out a win in the last desperate moments, it becomes a question of will his heroes win, rather than how his heroes win.

                   So when I found out recently that he'd not only published a book, but that it had raced up the bestseller lists and was being called a smart summer read, I was elated. And cautious. Usually, when an author I like becomes noticed by the populace, it's because they sacrifice some of what got them to the point they were at in the first place. Because the general publishing game and the mainstream audiences require things to be a little less out there than their underground stuff. Or maybe it's a sign of artists maturing and getting more serious with age, and I'm just cantankerous. I don't know, I just like the earlier flourishes. But I'm digressing quite a bit here.

                  It took me several months before I was able to get my hands on Lexicon, and when I finally did, I couldn't read it right away. I wanted to finish Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom before that, as I was in the middle of that and didn't want to divide my attention between the two books. But with Chung Kuo done, I went on to read Lexicon with an open mind, and a welcome return to one of my favorite authors, a man who has consistently put out good books. And is it? Well...

                Lexicon tells two stories, one some time in the past, the other set in the present. In the present, a man named Will wakes in an airport bathroom while being tortured by two desperate men and some kind of cerebral probing device. In the ensuing chaos, he finds he is called an "outlier", and that people are trying to kill him for some reason. And that these people, called "Poets", can make anyone do anything by uttering a series of syllables based on the personality type of the person and then issuing a command. Eliot, a former poet, must now travel with the severely-confused Will to the town of Broken Hill, Australia. It becomes clear that Will is now the sole survivor of some kind of disaster in Broken Hill, and it has something to do with the Poets' organization. 

                 In alternating sections, it tells the story of Emily Ruff, a young woman recruited by the Poets from her life doing three-card monte in California. The book follows Emily from her time on the streets to her time at the Academy, where she learns the appropriate segments and syllables to issue commands to people, a process known as "proselytizing". After an event where she accidentally kills another student, Emily is sent to the small town of Broken Hill in Australia, supposedly so she could lie low and learn how to live with people and not get into trouble or misuse the abilities she's been entrusted with. And eventually, she's contacted again by her organization, and even given a nice job in one of their offices. 

And then things get weird.**

             Emily quickly gets involved with the theft of a Babel-era weapon called a "Bareword", and the mysterious head of the English-speaking Poet organization, code named "Yeats". There's also a minor enigma around her paramedic ex-boyfriend, Harry, who seems to be immune to both her manipulations and segmentation itself.  These plots eventually intertwine and come together with a showdown in the place where the entire disaster began, a small town in Australia known as Broken Hill. As the Poets and their forces (sinister men and women in black suits and helmets that seal them off from being affected by the words) close in on Broken Hill, Eliot and Will try to figure out what's going on both inside and outside the town, and Emily (now going by the name Virginia Woolf) makes her way back for the final showdown. Questions are answered, people die, and there's a massive siege over a piece of driftwood with something eldritch carved into it

              I suppose I should start with the characters. This is far and away Max Barry's strong point, as the characters' voices shine through more than anything. Most of the strongest voices belong to the poets, with Emily and Eliot standing out the most. Emily is brash and kind of crude, and even after she's been around more refined company, the dialogue choices make it very clear she's still the person underneath. Which isn't to say she doesn't change. While she starts the book as bratty and barely in control, she ends it with a much better understanding of both herself and how her powers work. It's a very well-handled transformation, ending with a moment of brutal catharsis that, by that point, you've been waiting most of the book for Barry and his characters to finally deliver. Eliot starts the book as desperate, and his arc actually shows how little he changes over the course of the story. Which, when it's revealed fairly early on that he's gone rogue from the Poets, actually tells you more about the character than if he'd changed throughout the course of the book.

                 The pacing is also something to be praised. Despite a story that contains a large number of characters with very little idea of what's actually going on, Lexicon manages to be a fairly clear and quick-moving thriller. It says something that the first Emily section (the book starts with Will) doesn't slow the momentum down, but only continues the mystery and sense that something is very wrong.  It manages to keep up the breakneck pace through the alternating sections by telegraphing some of the end of the story-- we know things are going to end up coming to a head in Broken Hill, because that's where all of the story leads. It keeps the momentum ticking along quite nicely by dropping hints And even on the rare occasions it flags, the pace does more than enough to keep up the interest in the story. 

             But for every step in Lexicon, Barry makes a misstep. And the main misstep with characters is that of Will. While there are in-plot reasons as to why Will never makes any kind of advancement in his character arc, the whole thing just feels like it should have gone somewhere and just...didn't. In fact, if anything, Will's arc is one where he backslides rather than stepping forward, and while it eventually makes sense, he spends a lot of time being an unhelpful load, even after he knows what's going on. I'd have liked to see him grow up a little more before the eventual reveal of exactly why he can do what he does, and who he is in the overall structure of the story. Another misstep is the point of view parts for the shadowy Yeats. Yeats works best when there's less known about his motivations and why he's doing what he's doing. He doesn't need to have chapters from his POV, and some of his inner thoughts just make his motivations more confusing. He seems to take joy in sadism, but then why is he even bothering to justify what he does in the name of the Organization? 

               Another thing that hobbles the book is in fact its own structure. Due to the lack of time-stamping, some of the flashbacks with Emily in Australia tend to blur together with the present-day events. Especially as the book comes to a climax, and the reader has to slowly piece together what belongs where. While the knot resolves itself nicely just a few chapters later, it still sticks in the craw before that, and makes the momentum slow to a crawl while the reader tries to figure out what's going on and where the hell the characters even are, let alone when.

               And the final blow to the book is that, when revealed, a lot of the mysteries seem like cop-outs. While the story is resolved, I was left with a distinct sense of "so it was all for that?" Also, the cop-outs seemed to leave the story tied up a little too neatly, and while the ending was very, very sweet it seemed like a way to make everything end on an optimistic note in spite of the story, rather than because of it. Also, many of the plot elements sprinkled throughout, like the way the organization filters the populace into segments through social media or the revelation that there might be more than one bareword are a little...wasted. They seem like excess qualities in a book that didn't need excess, and while they make interesting points, they really should have been avoided.

               But in the end, do I think the book's worth reading? Yes. It's a quick read, and enjoyable. I wasn't disappointed in it whatsoever, and in the end, its entertaining to see how it all shakes out. It also reveals some interesting questions about language and how we view words. But take this one out of the library. Inter-library loan it if necessary. But if you're looking for something more than just a surface read, pick up one of Max Barry's other books. This one is good, but it's not essential.


- IMAJICA by Clive Barker
- IT by Stephen King


*It feels good to say those words again
** That, too!
*** I'd Put Infinite Jest on the list, but I'm not sure about that one. Seems a little too dense.

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