I just finished Lexicon by Max Barry and what a fun book it is. It starts off with a man named Wil waking up while two other men are poking a needle into his eye. Ouch! From there we have an escape and chase and capture and then another escape and a long and varied chase before a final escape. Except Wil ends up escaping with Eliot, one of the men who stuck the needle in his eye. Confusing? A little. But it is supposed to be because it is told from Wil’s point of view so we learn what’s going on as he discovers it.
But Wil’s is not the only narrative voice in the book. We also have Emily Ruff, a sixteen-year-old street kid who survives on her wits and her fast hands. She is good at parting people from their money by laying out cards and asking the unlucky mark where the queen is. She is discovered and taken off the streets by a mysterious man who gives her a plane ticket to a private school in Washington DC. But this school is not like any other. At this school students learn to use the power of words to compromise people and get them to do what they want.
The best graduates of the school become Poets, sort of like secret agents except they work for no one but themselves. It is never clear why they do what they do or what their ultimate goal is. I suppose I could surmise it is to be a check and balance to power, but they have their own power problems within their ranks and don’t even realize it until much too late.
The story jumps back and forth between Wil who is in the present and Emily who is in the near past. The two narratives bounce off each other, filling in the blanks for the reader until they finally meet up. In Wil’s present Emily is known as Virginia Woolf. She is the best Poet at hunting and attack and she is after Eliot (as in T.S.) and Wil. Wil is in danger because he is what is called an Outlier, someone who is immune to the power of the Poets and their words. Woolf had released a very powerful word in a small town in middle of nowhere Australia and all 3,000 inhabitants, except Wil, died. Why Woolf did what she did we learn as we go along and we think we find out the truth of the matter but, but, well, this is a sort of science fiction thriller so I don’t want to give anything away.
The pacing in the book is good. Barry manages to say some interesting things about language and tell a good story. That the Poets are given names based on their abilities is rather humorous. I chuckled throughout that Woolf and Eliot were trying to kill each other after starting off as friends. Woolf is innovative and always manages to find the right word to get the job done. Eliot is impenetrable. The head of the Poets is named Yeats and he terrifies everyone with his dead eyes. But he has a certain fetish for good shoes and it turns out to be his weakness. His assistant is Plath who, as the novel progresses, is increasing noted to be more and more neurotic and unstable. There are others but you have to find out for yourself.
Lexicon is a fun book, a suspense novel for the bookish crowd. It’s a light, quick read. Not perfect, but enjoyable nonetheless.