Lexicon by Max Barry is a near-future thriller in which talented individuals known as poets are able to use special nonsense words to force people to submit to their will. Aspiring poets are trained at a special school where they learn to identify what “segment” a person belongs to, which will then tell them the words that can govern them. Upon graduation, the poets are given a new name (Eliot, Bronte, Lowell) and assigned their new duties.
Emily is identified as a candidate for the school when its scouts spot her scamming people with a card game on the street. But the school is not exactly easy for Emily, as she’s not especially inclined to follow rules she doesn’t understand. In the meantime, the novel is also following the story of a man named Wil who escaped some sort of disaster at a remote Australian town and who appears to be immune from the poets’ words. Clips of news stories and message board posts that appear between the chapters show that the disaster is just one of many strange occurrences that the general public and news media cannot comprehend. Part of the driving action of the book is seeing just how vast the conspiracy behind the poets’ network is.
I was really into this book to start. It has an intriguing premise, and I enjoyed the process of piecing together how Emily and Wil’s stories linked together. I sometimes think I’m more interested in the set-up than anything else when it comes to these kinds of books, and this set-up is clever enough. And I think Barry is onto something interesting and relevant when he talks about segmentation and finding the right words for the right audience in order to control them. That is, after all, how social media algorithms work. But he doesn’t really do much with this premise. The words are more like magic tricks than actual persuasion, and the effect more like hypnosis than bending of a person’s thinking.
The plot structure similarly doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, I think partly because it collapses under its own weight as the two threads come together. I liked the way the two stories linked and the gradual unveiling of their relationship, but toward the end, it started to get too difficult to know where the characters were in the story. Some of the difficulty was intentional, I’m sure, meant to create more twists, and it was satisfying to find out that things that didn’t feel right in fact weren’t right because of where we actually were in the story. But I’m not all that interested in those kinds of twists. I’d rather have a clearer understanding of where the characters are in their journey.