Max Barry’s last novel, Machine Man, was one of my favorite books of 2011, and while I tried not to expect another favorite book, I was still pretty disappointed.
Lexicon’s in-vogue premise—young magicians gone awry—has already been played to death in recent years, since it’s the obvious counterpoint to the Harry Potter phenomenon. And though I’d rather read a Barry thriller than a Ludlum, Barry’s prose alone isn’t good enough to make a book great. Machine Man reached excellence because it focused on a unique (and very funny) character. Lexicon’s characters are neither unique nor funny, and Barry’s plot devices actually force them to be as boring as possible. There’s simply not enough here to make this better than slightly above average.
Lexicon revolves around an X-Men-style elite private school for select students with advanced “persuasion” abilities. The sci-fi idea at the heart of this education is that the human brain’s reliance on language to function means that it can be hypnotized by certain powerful words, “compromised” in the parlance of the novel. The school takes gifted young students and teaches them everything from Latin to psychology, with the aim to parse people into discrete types, or “segments,” and find which words will work on them. They call their graduates, the ones who can wield these powers, “poets.”
The narrative splits time between the recruitment and education of a particularly persuasive homeless girl named Emily Ruff, and the experiences of a man named Wil Parke after something like a civil war has begun between sects of poets.
Basically, we have a mix of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which explored the idea of a proto-language that could control people’s brains without their consent, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in which young magicians do less-than-wonderful things with their new powers. It’s no wonder, then, that Lev Grossman loved Lexicon.
Barry’s plotting holds the book together (which is good because there’s precious little else to do that), and he rolls out twists at regular intervals, but his jumping around in time can get confusing, and his climax is predictable and saccharine.
But more devastating is Barry’s lack of character work. Emily has a little bit of character to her, but Wil is quite boring and every single poet is a bore. That’s not just happenstance: since part of the recipe for compromise is figuring out which segment a person belongs to, the poets (especially the higher level ones) work tirelessly to scrub out all traces of their personality. They’re frequently described as wearing poker faces and displaying no emotion or desire.
There are some interesting facets to this—such as a gathering of international poets in which rampant fear of compromise stymies progress at every turn (as a political allegory it’s light on subtlety)—but ultimately this emotionlessness prohibits the novel from achieving any real impact on the reader. This concerns me, because, as a Barry fan, I was hoping he’d discovered the power of great characters after Machine Man. That does not appear to be the case.
As for the other facets of Barry’s premise, they’re not much more than window dressing: tossed-off line about the nature of dictionaries, a maguffin in the form of a “bareword,” and the occasional OED-style word history. Ultimately the poets’ discipline is a slight variation on fantasy-style magic, as they themselves routinely make reference to. The struts of the narrative still rest on thriller mainstays like guns, jujitsu, fight scenes, and car chases, and the introduction of magic doesn’t do enough to freshen that up.
Unfortunately, this is no more than a kinda good thriller, and that’s a shame.