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Lexicon by Max Barry

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Lexicon by Max Barry
© The Penguin Press
The Penguin Press, 2013

Max Barry's (Jennifer Government) novels tend to be fast, cinematic, edge-of-your-seat stories; they're suspenseful visions of dystopic societal turns that seem to be just around the corner from our current reality. Lexicon is no different.

Page one: two men in suits are in an airport restroom jamming a needle into the eye of Wil Parke, an unfortunate sod who may or may not be "the outlier" but who, nevertheless, is subjected to a series of baffling questions during this spine-shiveringly messy procedure:

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

What is your favorite color?

Pick a random number between one and ten?

Do you love your family?

Why did you do it?

The nature of these questions and what they have to do with Wil Parke is revealed throughout the course of the novel. In the firest few pages however, characters are run over; characters are shot. Characters are named for poets - Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Tom Eliot - poets who moved multitudes with their words, which is exactly what these characters do, just a bit more directly. And more lethally. And the reader’s eye is inextricably glued to Barry’s text.

It is just a few years into our future and an organization referred to only as "The Organization" has divined a secret lexicon of persuasion, an ancient vocabulary whose utterance renders listeners susceptible to the commands of the "poet," one of the select few who have been chosen to learn these words at a secret school in Arlington, Virginia.
Emily Ruff is a 16-year-old street urchin living on her wits and the power of misdirection in the three card monte games by which she relieves San Francisco tourists of their money. In a prototypical rags to riches story, Emily is discovered by The Organization and sent to the academy where she learns the many methods of persuasion. Emily proves promising, however her unconventional and undisciplined behavior puts her on the wrong side of the powers that be and, in the sequence of the events leading up to the guy in the bathroom with the syringe in his eye, she becomes The Organization's number one enemy.

In two anachronistically interwoven storylines, Max Barry reveals Emily's story - the events leading up to her break with her peers and the conflict that splits the organization - and that of Wil Parke, the man in the airport restroom, a carpenter with a past life unknown even to him, and an individual whose seeming immunity to the ancient language of persuasion makes him a person of particular interest to the poets.

As with his previous novels, Barry's Lexicon is a fast-paced thriller satirizing some tear in our societal fabric.In Jennifer Government, Barry skewered rampant corporatization of everything and everbody; in Company, it was the bizarre bureaucracy of the corporate culture with which, as a former Hewlett Packard employee, Barry was intimately familiar. In the case of Lexicon, it is our current propensity for sharing personal details allowing ourselves to be segmented and targeted by those who would influence us.

Lexicon will never be considered high art, and Barry is no poet. Unless we’re using his definition of the term to connote one who persuades, in which case this is exactly what Max Barry is, as he will compel you from start to finish with a compelling premise and masterful execution of the story.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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