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Review: ‘Lexicon’ explores the power of words

“Lexicon” (The Penguin Press), by Max Barry

The power of words and the consequences of using them inappropriately are explored in fascinating ways in Max Barry’s latest novel, Lexicon.

A group of people known as “poets” can use specific words and phrases to compel and persuade another person to commit acts he or she normally wouldn’t think of doing. A man named Wil gets off a plane in Portland, Ore., and is accosted in the restroom before he can pick up his luggage. The thugs ask him strange questions about what he remembers and “why did you do it?” A quick escape ends in a shootout, and Wil is kidnapped.

Elsewhere, a young orphan girl named Emily uses her gift of manipulation to do card tricks for money on the streets of San Francisco. Someone sees her in action and offers her a chance to change her life. She can attend a school where she can learn the ability to use words for more than just mere communication.

The story jumps back and forth between Emily’s eerie school with its strange exams and teachers and Wil, who has no memory of events before boarding the plane.

Lexicon is a strange combination of romance, thriller and science fiction. Imagine blending the works of Neal Stephenson with Michael Chabon and the end result would come close to the world envisioned by Barry. The words brilliant and exemplary aren’t adequate enough to convey the amazing craft of Lexicon.

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