New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.
Late to the party, as I often am. This book made a number of “Best Books of 2013” lists, and Jenny named it winner in the Jolliest Good Fun category, an award that fits this book perfectly.
It was jolly good fun, and I could not put it down. I suppose calling it a book about books is a bit of a stretch, but when an author names his characters after famous poets, and when those poets can use their words to control people, I think you have to say that this is a thriller that supplies thrills to bibliophiles.
Lexicon engages with multiple tropes from romance and westerns and thrillers, as well as with versions of the myth of Babel. Barry brings that myth into the twenty-first century using linguistics, psychology, comparative mythology and computer science. It’s a fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power. A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour. Some of these recruits get out of hand. Thrills ensue.
Of course, magic words can be a bit of a magic bullet in terms of plotting, and Barry explains away how a lot of the odd events never get investigated because the poets have managed to make reporters and the military and governments (!) believe what they want them to believe. Whatever. It’s just greasing the wheels of the story.
I think what I liked best about the book was Barry’s ability to take the myth of Babel and modernize it as a means to satirize our contemporary consumer and popular culture. I found his use of linguistics and neurology so fun, and while I’m sure experts in these fields would find much to quarrel with in his application of them to this fantasy world, I did not want to quarrel. Like so many characters in the book are forced to do, I was willing to suspend thought that would impede his goals with words. I was willing to be enthralled. Something about the quality of his scientific realism reminded me often of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and The Magicians, and the descriptions of the school where the recruits are trained was a lot like Grossman’s college of magic. The books share an ability to ground magic in something plausibly real, they make magic a difficult and often frustrating academic discipline. I was also reminded of Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife. Barry and Pullman both describe a locksmith’s sense of intuiting a precise sliding into place of all the pieces needed to make the magic work.
The magic worked on me. Jolly good fun.