At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “poets”, and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.
This is the description of Lexicon, the latest novel by Melbourne-based author, Max Barry. And it is a masterpiece. The story focusses primarily on two characters – street-smart teen runaway, Emily Ruff, and confused and innocent victim, Wil Parke.
Wil is brutally kidnapped by men who claim he is the secret weapon in a war between strange people with powerful magic, though he knows nothing of what is going on. Emily is recruited for her naturally persuasive skills after a poet watches her conning punters with a find-the-lady card game on the street.
The story is told in a mosaic of history style, following Emily’s education and introduction to the powerful and mysterious organisation of poets, alongside Wil’s present-day battle alongside the strange and enigmatic Eliot.
Barry’s handling of the timelines and the seemingly broken way the story is told is masterful, but that’s not the real genius of this book. For me, it’s in the connections Barry draws between modern privacy and data collection concerns and ancient ideas of persuasion and magic. He dissects language as a tool and as a weapon in fascinating and, frankly, quite frightening ways. The ideas behind the powers of coercion and the very real possibility of an organisation like that of the poets in this book are sobering.
There are a few small issues I have. Without spoilers, things like where the word in Broken Hill came from and how it was managed by the lab techs was probably the biggest issue for me. That’ll make sense when you read the book. And read the book you absolutely should. Aside from a few unanswered questions and small flaws in the internal logic of the story, this is nonetheless an ambitious and really quite astonishing achievement. One of the best books I’ve read in ages, I highly recommend it. I’ll certainly be looking to read this author’s other work now.