• Max Barry
  • The Penguin Press
  • 400 pp.

Barry’s latest terrifyingly believable sci-fi novel dissects how a single word can control minds and obliterate civilizations.

Many works of literature, such as The Iliad, contain excellent examples of in medias res, and Max Barry’s latest, Lexicon, provides another one. Lexicon begins with two men jamming a needle through one of the main character’s eyes, reaching directly into his brain. The needle-wielders are two poets, the highest-ranking officials of a private Academy, searching for a single word locked in their victim’s brain. Not just any word, the bareword they’re searching for is more potent than the H-bomb. Mirroring the poets, Barry probes directly into his readers’ brains. Not sparing his audience a moment to breathe, this novel grabs on and doesn’t let go.

Seriously. There is no escape, not for the main characters and not for the readers, mostly because the most bone-chilling aspect of the entire novel is the bareword. That’s it: one word. This one bareword has as much power as an entire army. Escaping words is as difficult for the characters as it is for the readers. The irony here is not a happy accident. The beginning words of Lexicon aptly describe itself: “Every story written is marks upon a page. The same marks, repeated, only differently arranged.” By rearranging those marks in a meaningful way, weapons such as the bareword are born.  

Lexicon proves to be a difficult novel to review, not so much because of the content as because of how that content is laid out. The premise of the novel is that virtually anyone’s mind can be controlled using a series of carefully chosen words based on his or her personality type, which the novel lays out as psychographic groups. These groups are numbered segments that are similar to Type-A or Type-B personalities but with far more detail. For instance, those who fall into Segment 107 are intuitive and fear-motivated people, who like primary colors and small numbers and will work to find the simplest solution to a problem. Discovering someone’s psychographic group is like being handed the password to their brains.

The mind is like a lock — thus certain keys can be used to open it. The Academy, apparently located in Washington, is where selected students are taught these various keys and codes to hack into the human brain. Guiding readers through opening the lock, Lexicon operates like a safe with each tumbler falling into place at the end of every chapter. Each section of the novel, like the sections of the brain that the poets can break into, delivers pertinent information, feeding little rewards to readers. Thus, readers turn the pages because they are being persuaded to keep flipping, to find the next reward, to unlock the next door, to let the next tumbler fall into place. Words, then, operate as keys: find the correct ones and, voilà, not only can any human’s mind be controlled, but an entire civilization can be obliterated.

So what about the guy with the needle in his eye? Wil Parke is an outlier, part of the 1 percent of the population whose brain can’t be cracked. He’s immune to persuasion, so the Academy’s rogue alumna Emily — renamed Virginia Woolf because students are given new names and identities based on famous poets — has no impact on him. He is the only living man who knows what the bareword is and can retrieve it from ground zero in Broken Hill, Australia, where it has decimated a population of 3,000 people. Media has told the world that Broken Hill is the result of a chemical disaster. Woolf, however, is responsible for the disaster; she posted the bareword in a hospital and knows Parke is her only threat. So begins a game of cat and mouse — or cat and cat or mouse and mouse.

Poet Eliot, Woolf’s former teacher at the Academy, must do everything possible to get Parke in — and out — of Broken Hill before the entire human race becomes exposed and dies. To accomplish this, Eliot leaves the academy and tracks down Parke, who reluctantly agrees to go on this dangerous mission. Meanwhile, to ensure her survival, Woolf must find Parke so she can eliminate both the outlier and her old professor. With each chapter the narration convinces the reader to switch loyalties from Woolf to Eliot and Parke and then to Woolf again. Until the novel’s end, readers constantly shift their perspective in deciding who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. Barry, using his meticulously crafted words, digs into the readers’ minds while the words in the story also shape the characters’ thoughts and actions.

Without any explanatory transition, Lexicon’s timeline bounces all over the place: one minute readers find themselves in present time with Wil Parke racing towards Broken Hill and the next with Emily as a relatively naïve 16-year-old street hawker. Surprisingly, this sling-shooting between the past, present and sometimes even the future doesn’t become confusing. Instead, it only adds to the book’s premise that words can mess with our minds.

Perhaps that’s the real genius of Lexicon: its realistic nature and terrifying plausibility. It may be sci-fi but it’s set in our world and our time. Moreover, the novel is not chockfull of sorcerers, magic or even fancy new-age gadgets. It’s brimming over with words and not just the ones on the page. From the first chapter to long after the final acknowledgements, words nestle into the readers’ brains. Yes, Lexicon has action, sci-fi and romance, but that’s not why you should read it. It’s a must-read because it does something that is difficult to accomplish in this day and age: it makes people think.

Prof. Fatima Azam teaches English writing and literature at two community colleges as well as Georgetown University. She resides in Maryland, where she is working on her fifth novel and loves words almost as much as chocolate pastries.

comments powered by Disqus