We’re reading LEXICON by Max Barry

27 Jun

A playful thriller reminds Holly Gramazio to mind her Ps and Qs


Max Barry
Mulholland Books, HB £14.99 / Penguin Press, HB $26.95

This is a novel about words, and their ability to control us: the way that picking just the right phrase can convince someone or stop them in their tracks. It’s also an adventure about highly-trained operatives who can figure out exactly the right words to use to control any situation (“poets”), focusing on their interactions with a word that kills anyone who encounters it, and with a man who has a strange immunity to the words’ control.

The language we encounter controls our thoughts more than we realise. In the 60s and 70s, there was a flurry of explorations of this general idea in response to the now largely-discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; they have a slightly different resonance now that we’re all worried about framing and personalised advertising and filter-bubble effects and our vulnerability to different cognitive biases. It all comes down to the same basic concept, though: to a greater or lesser extent, the words we use influence the way we think.

This can be a really difficult subject for a novelist, because the way language influences thought and behaviour can only be explored through language. For the influence to be convincing, it needs to demonstrated through action, and this unavoidably exposes us to fictional words that are meant to control thought – at which point it becomes really clear that they don’t. Sometimes writers deal with this head-on, representing a version of the controlling language itself, and asking us to take it on trust that it reflects and has an impact on the characters’ perceptions – Ayn Rand’s terrible Anthem, with its avoidance of “I”; Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, with its sentences from a language that doesn’t acknowledge ownership. Sometimes we see the effects of the language indirectly instead – the addictive qualities of a particular type of speech are demonstrated in Mieville’s Embassytown through its physical effects on some of the characters; in Delany’s Babel 17, Rydra Wong is gradually betrayed by the new language she’s learning, thoughts and behaviours changing as she becomes more expert.

Max Barry’s solution to the problem is a smart one, and it fits well with current takes on language and its influence on our behaviour. People are – he hypothesises – vulnerable to different types of language depending on their personality type; so a block of words that will send one person into obedient shock will leave another unmoved. The stream of nonsense syllables that poets can use to break into the brains of their targets are therefore never meant to work on you-the-reader: you’re just not the right personality type.

The world makes a good setting for a fun, fast-moving adventure. It has a slightly complicated temporal structure which works well with the underlying story, and it reads easily even at its most convoluted. The characters are clearly drawn, likeable when they should be, moderately alarming when it’s appropriate, and interestingly ambiguous in a few cases. Barry is at his best when he’s wrangling his story and its structure, getting you involved quickly in all the different plot threads, moving you through the book and individual scenes at the pace he chooses.

The book is scattered with imaginary excerpts from websites – forums and discussions and emails and news reports – giving different perspectives on the book. There are made-up quotes about websites that filter content based on the user; complaints from imaginary forum users about the ubiquity of social media; personality quizzes that could have a sinister purpose. The excerpts are useful punctuation at times but they don’t quite come off: Barry’s tone isn’t varied enough for them to feel like they’re genuinely gathered from dozens of different sources, and their content makes it feel like he doesn’t trust us to understand what he’s getting at without a walkthrough.

Sometimes Barry’s sentences make their intentions and their function in the narrative just a bit too clear. Essentially he has chosen to make sure everyone understands what’s going on and what he’s getting at thematically, at the risk of occasionally making readers who prefer a more oblique approach feel a little patronised or frustrated. It’s a reasonable trade-off for an entertaining book with a neat premise that holds together well, both as a story and as the basis for a really quite decent bit of linguistic speculation.

Holly Gramazio goes out to play in Adult pursuits. Read her in Arc 1.2: Post human conditions, out now for screens, tablets, phones and in a collectible print edition.

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