BBR: Lexicon, by Max Barry

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

What is your favorite color?

Pick a number from 1-100.

Do you love your family?

Why did you do it?

Congratulations! Based on your responses to those five questions, your personality type has been analyzed and you have been sorted into a “segment”; each segment responds unconsciously to certain phonetic sounds/syllables, enabling you to be–well, “hijacked” is a pretty strong word, as is “hacked”, so let’s go with “influenced”–by persons who know the key sounds that correspond to your segment.

And in a private school near Arlington, Virginia, run by a group called the “poets”, students are being taught the control sounds that will allow them to…influence…your mind. When they graduate, they will be given the name of a writer (hence the name of the organization; the fame level of the writer whose name they adopt is determined by their power, so an obscure poet probably means you’re dealing with a recent graduate, while the organization itself is run by William Butler Yeats) and sent out into the world to carry out the organization’s unknown, unclear purpose.

Welcome to the world of Max Barry’s Lexicon.



There are some things you should know about Lexicon. First, you will be OMG SO CURIOUS about what segment you’d be. Fear not! There is an online Lexicon quiz (yayyy!) that will tell you your segment but not your code words (boooo).

Second, the action centers around Broken Hill, Australia, where a rogue poet has set off a “bareword”, a word of unimaginable and uncontrollable power. Anyone who goes into Broken Hill does not come out alive, and it is cordoned off and the press has been fed the notion that something terrible has happened there, along the lines of a chemical weapons spill or a Chernobyl-type disaster. No one goes in, no one comes out, and somebody needs to figure out how to stop this thing. And ideally, if the poet has survived, stop the poet too…bearing in mind that the poet knows the words to control all other human beings. Good luck with that. So for a book about linguistics and word-nerd stuff, there sure is a lot of action in this…which is actually pretty great.

Third, there is some “who are you, no, who are you really?” going on with this novel. And that’s where it lost me.

Surely by now y’all have picked up that I’m a leeeeettle tiny bit of a language geek. I loves me some words. I love the power of words, I love the music of words, I love the truths that underlie words, and because I’ve got synesthesia (there’s your fun trivia for the day), I have an actually pretty visceral relationship with words (synesthesia comes in various types; the kind I have means that I “taste” words. Like, fo’ reals. Like there are some words I don’t like because they taste bad–“enrich”, for example. /shudder).

Also, I am a die-hard, bone-deep, love-it-with-the-passion-of-a-thousand-burning-suns, fan of Ursula LeGuin’s amazing Earthsea series. In those books, every noun has a “true name”, and once you know those names, you can control the nouns they call. When I imagine being a super-powerful wizard (hush, you know you’ve done it too), I imagine knowing the true names of all the things instead of imagining knowing a lot of spells. Spells can make things happen; knowing a thing’s true name can make the thing do the verb by itself. I’m totes down with that.

So if you hand me a novel where the entire plot is based around the power of words, the secrets behind words, and the use of key sounds/words as methods of control…well, I mean, let’s just say the dinner plan went from “I will have a delicious homemade meal on the table when Moon Man gets home” to “Dinner is whatever you pick up. Or find in the freezer. Or have delivered. I don’t care. I’m reading. Go away” in a heckuva hurry.

Mama gots some time for that, is what I’m sayin’.

But remember back where I said that there’s a certain sub-mystery about who these people are? Yeah, well, I figured it out. In one case, I figured it out the minute I met a character–like, the character entered the novel, and I thought “Oh, I wonder if that’s X”, and sure enough, I was right. And while sure, there’s a little internal fist-pump that goes along with that validation, mostly I found it really frustrating–because now I’ve solved a mystery, and have to spend the next 100 pages watching the characters fumble around to get to the same conclusions. I guess in theory it should be enjoyable to watch them pick it apart, but frankly, I get impatient–it’s the same reason I didn’t do well in geometry in high school (“What do you mean, prove that Figure B is a triangle? Look at it. It is a triangle. Ask any five-year-old, and they’ll tell you.”). It’s the same frustration I felt when watching Fight Club, and the same frustration I felt when reading Gone Girl–once you see the twist, waiting for everyone else to spot it gets a little challenging.

That being said, I bet if you read Lexicon and don’t happen to find the right key for the lock on the first try (I’m not saying I’m supremely clever, just that sometimes I can guess the right answer on the first go), then it’s probably tremendously enjoyable. As it stands for me, it was still a really good book, and I’ll totally loan it to friends–it just wasn’t quite as amazing as I might have hoped it would be.

Though really, with a foundation like this novel has, it’s pretty hard for me not to forgive it. YAY WORDS!

TL;DR: Lexicon is set in a world where a clandestine group of “poets” study the control words/sounds/syllables that enable them to hack people’s minds. When one of them goes rogue and sets off a “bareword” near Broken Hill, Australia, it falls to the rest to determine what happened, why it happened, and clean up the fallout–which is no small feat, since the bareword appears to be nearly universally effective and no one who enters Broken Hill has come out alive.

Rating: 8.5/10 Muddy Hoofprints. This book is clever. It’s intelligent, funny at times, full of action, and makes you just plain desperate to know what segment you belong to, what your control words are, and which poet you’d be named after. Also, the idea of a “bareword” fascinates me to no end. So while I happened to unravel the mystery a little earlier than is really ideal, this one still goes on my “totally recommend it” pile. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go say every syllable on earth to myself, to see if any of them make my brain feel hijacked.


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