The Word Exchange: A Novel

  • Alena Graedon
  • Doubleday
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jaime Netzer
  • May 27, 2014

In this dystopic world where words are bought and sold, Anana struggles to solve a dark mystery and survive a word virus.

The saying goes that words aren’t cheap, but it was the task of debut novelist Alena Graedon to imagine a world where the opposite is true: In The Word Exchange, the death of print has become a discomfiting and eventually harrowing reality, where words are bought and sold – for about a quarter apiece – in a marketplace called the Word Exchange. It is no surprise, of course, that a novelist like Graedon today views the printless future as a dystopia. But what is surprising is the scope of her ambition, the depth of her imagination, and her own skill with language.

The world of Graedon’s novel is filled not with books, letters, and cell phones, but with Memes: implantable devices that feed data to users, anticipate their wants and needs, make it easier to remember events “in full, lustrous color,” and project virtual surroundings into users’ actual lives. If you stepped toward a street corner on your way home at night, a Meme might buzz “taxi” at you before you have a chance to raise your arm. In such a world, people have become linguistically maladroit, but the Memes and the Word Exchange provide definitions whenever needed.

The novel follows Anana Johnson, who works alongside her father Doug at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). Doug, NADEL’s editor-in-chief, is a luddite, avoiding the technology that has shaped his and Anana’s lives. Days before the release of NADEL’s third edition, Doug suddenly disappears, leaving behind a single, handwritten clue for Anana, which starts her on a journey to find him. That odyssey quickly becomes dangerous and far more complex than she anticipated. Entangled with Synchronic, the tech company that markets the Meme devices, Anana notices that she and many others around her are having trouble remembering words: they spit out nonsense instead of English and have developed companion physical symptoms as their aphasia grows. Anana’s challenge is to find her father and save his dictionary before the “word flu” changes her world permanently.

Readers can presuppose that Graedon cherishes language, but her ability to wield it masterfully is a joy to discover: “She studied me a moment, her brows trying to kiss” and “Only later did I feel truly horrified that for years I’d invited something to eavesdrop on … the careful, quiet thicket of my thoughts. Exposed as a called hand of cards.” To find such intelligent, original prose in a novel about the loss of words feels like some kind of delightful inside joke between the writer and the reader.  

Because aphasia is her nightmare of choice, Graedon faced a two-part challenge in The Word Exchange: She had to communicate the terror of this affliction effectively while not losing her readers’ comprehension entirely. She pulls the first challenge off without a hitch through the voice of Anana’s friend Bart, who writes in his journal despite his spiraling aphasia: “I searched for ‘Meme’ + ‘virus’ and found a whole drin of Internet threads” and “Because this sickness, or whatever it is, scares the pask out of me.” Even though the phrase “scares the pask out of me” does not make sense, we still understand what Bart means – and that’s upsetting.

But Graedon missteps with her second challenge: she underestimates her own ability to portray aphasia as truly terrifying. The story Graedon weaves is scary enough (at least for this reader) on its own to render unnecessary the added reactions and how-to-read-me cues. Her characters too often reflect on how they should have been more frightened at the time – an artificial way of raising the stakes (think, “if only I had known then that…”). And their physical affectations become excessive: Their hair regularly stands on end; their skin prickles too often; and heat rises to their faces. In other words, Graedon reminds us more explicitly necessary that this world is creepy.

Karen Russell, author of Pulitzer Prize-nominated Swamplandia!, described The Word Exchange as a “moving meditation on our sometimes comic, sometimes desperate struggles to speak, and to listen, and to mean something to one another,” and this question of making conversations meaningful is perhaps the most fun and most pertinent question Graedon wrestles with. Today, when we constantly document our lives without saying much of substance and read BuzzFeed lists in lieu of novels, do we endanger our meaningful conversations? How much harder are we making it to connect with one another? Might our enslavement to technology lead to a world in which words are cheap – are indeed for sale? Like any good novel, this haunting, compulsively readable, and highly intelligent future noir provides as many questions as it does answers.

Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and content editor living in Austin, Texas. Her stories have been published in Parcel, Human Parts, and Twelve Stories and are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review.

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