Throwback Thursday: Lexicon

Book cover: Lexicon - Max BarryWords have power. Words influence. Subvert. Radicalise. But what if that was just scratching the surface? What if the right word could hack the source code of your brain …and what if it fell into the wrong hands?

Lexicon has been sat on my TBR for years: a speculative thriller about the power of language, where poets wield words as weapons. In spite of that epic concept, I’d never quite got round to reading it until it came up as last month’s BookSpin, which was the perfect excuse to dig it out.

And now I’ve read it, it isn’t the book I thought it was. I was expecting a narrative that progressively drops letters of the alphabet, which seemed to fit right in with the notion of a war of words, but that turns out to be a completely different book (and now I have no idea what that book is – any ideas?). Thankfully, Lexicon is just as satisfying without the extra twist.

We’re not so much dropped in media res as in media what the fuck as Wil is jumped in an airport restroom by two men with a strong line in weird questions and unpleasant threats. Wil – allegedly – is key to unlocking the mystery of what happened at Broken Hill (I immediately wanted to know what happened at Broken Hill). His choices? Tell them and live, or resist them and die. If only he had any idea what they were talking about.

Would you describe yourself as more of a dog person or cat person?

Emily is a grifter in San Francisco. She’s quick with cards, quicker with her tongue and can sniff out a mark as easily as she can spot a threat. When an arrogant young man in a cheap suit dodges her tricks and then tries to recruit her for a mysterious programme, she’s half certain he’s fronting for a cult. Instead, she’s drawn into a world that feels like a prep school run by the CIA: as mysterious as it is ruthless.

What’s your favourite colour?

This is the modern world with a difference (you hope): there are people named for poets who can slice through your free will with a word. Different people respond to different words, but if the right word is used, they’ll do exactly as they’re told. Lexicon follows our two protagonists across split timelines: rebellious Emily’s training as she learns to use – and resist – and steal – the only words that matter; and Wil’s harrowing flight across the northwest – and eventually back to Broken Hill – with his captor Eliot, pursued by Woolf and Brontë. Their stories are interspersed with news reports and an internal memo: the cover ups that follow when words have been deployed, wrapping inexplicable events in comforting lies.

Do you love your family?

Taken purely as as an action-packed conspiracy thriller, Lexicon works brilliantly. The concept is strong and the execution is darkly entertaining. Wil is hapless but likeable, utterly out of his depth as he careers from one disaster to the next. Emily is more complicated: intriguing rather than sympathetic, as selfish and manipulative as she is determined (inevitably, I found her fascinating). While little is quite what it seems, most things turned out to be more or less exactly what I suspected – in a satisfying way, thanks to the excellent delivery that keeps ratcheting the emotional stakes.

Why did you do it?

But I liked Lexicon for being more than just a lightweight diversion for a couple of hours. At heart, it’s a satire on the weaponisation of personal information. The poets’ power rests on their ability to extract details about yourself: the more they know about you, the easier it is to find the words that will let them control you. For those asleep at the back, Barry goes one further and explains how those principles are applied online with sharp commentary on privacy, personalisation, echo chambers and fear as a form of social control. In 2020, this may feel obvious, but there’s a terrifying number of people who share memes revealing their names, dates of birth, and other details they’d do better to keep to themselves.

However, Barry never allows his very real concerns to derail his fictional narrative. If you want to read Lexicon for the fun, the asides won’t get in your way; they’ll just give you a little extra to chew on – and if they make you think twice about sharing your pet’s names and a TV show from the year you were born on Twitter (let alone allowing access to all your friends’ information so you can do a personality quiz on Facebook), maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


Content warning: fridging, issues of consent (obviously), sexual coercion, implied sexual assault (and honestly, this is my only beef with Lexicon – the scope for abuse in a sexual context was abundantly clear very early on; having the villain fantasise briefly about making a woman fuck her shoes to teach her respect for good footwear was a line that didn’t need to be crossed. It is a tiny moment very late in the book, but… really? Really?)