Book Review: Lexicon by Max Barry


A thrilling novel has to have the right balance of plausibility. If it tips too far in either direction, the thrill is replaced with either revulsion or ridicule. Too much plausibility, and it becomes a novelisation of horrific evening news reports. (I don’t know anyone who watches those for entertainment.) Not enough plausibility, and it becomes the ludicrous and absurd. (Think Paul Jennings—an author entertaining in his own right, but not thrilling, dramatic as his scenarios may be.)

I found ‘Lexicon’ by Max Barry was thrilling on three levels:

1) On the surface, it had an exciting storyline, despite the ambiguous and bewildering back-cover blurb:

Sticks and stones break bones. Words kill. They recruited Emily from the streets. They said it was because she’s good with words. They’ll live to regret it. Wil survived something he shouldn’t have. But he doesn’t remember it. Now they’re after him and he doesn’t know why. There’s a word, they say. It shouldn’t have got out. But it did. And they want it back.”

2) Underneath the plot, it suggested an extremely invasive danger: that one cannot feel safe even within one’s own mind…

3) …and then it proved it. It played me. But I hadn’t realised it had done so until it was over, and I was leaving a review for it on Goodreads.

The story hinged on the power of words, and their being able to circumvent a mind’s defences. This linguistic power isn’t only in the purview of fantasy and magic spells—every copywriter and marketer knows about it, and uses it. As do lawyers. And politicians. And…well, pretty much anyone interested in the art of persuasion.

In ‘Lexicon’, by saying the right words, someone could ‘compromise’ somebody else. Essentially, it was mind-control—but that term appeared nowhere in the manuscript, because that would have cheapened it. It would have turned the thrilling into the ridiculous.

So instead of ‘mind-control’, it was aptly termed ‘persuasion’. Complementing the authenticity of the condition were other straight-backed and grown-up terms, like ‘neurolinguistics’, ‘segmentation’, and ‘normative social influence’. Couched in that nomenclature, suddenly the threat of mind control seemed a lot more plausible. (Aided by the healthy dose of disbelief-suspension that all fiction readers come prepared with.)

In writing my Goodreads review, I realised that it was the semantics that made the story so exciting for me. The very same story executed without those words—‘enthralled’ instead of ‘persuaded’, ‘controlled’ instead of ‘compromised’—would have been ridiculous. Thus, my excited good review of the book was bought with the plausibility of appealing words.

Persuasive words.

Max Barry persuaded me. Would I have responded differently, had he not given me those words? Would dressing it in different labels have changed its effect?

Undoubtedly. It would have sucked.

And it was that realisation—in which the fantasy of the novel permeated the reality of my world—that had plausibility in just sufficient measure to make the concept truly thrilling. Because of his calculated and deliberate word usages, he essentially made me give him a good review. I was persuaded. I was compromised.

And I was thrilled.

Having already been interested in etymology and the English language, I was perhaps biased, and doomed to enjoy this book from the start. But I nevertheless found its story and execution wonderful homage to the power of language.


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