Reviewed by Rich Magahiz
Thriller is the chosen genre of the 21st century. We are by now very familiar with its vocabulary of shadowy conspiracies, strangers with unknown motivations, mooks who find themselves on the short side of a firearm, traveling undetected through public transportation, the constant threat of assassination, the puppet master, jailbreaks.
In his new novel, Lexicon, Max Barry has come up with a way to infuse it with something new by mixing in some speculative brain science. His idea is that of a secret organization of poets which has codified a set of neurolinguistic rules allowing them to take over the mind of anyone and implant a command. Other reviewers have mentioned the connection with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash where the lethal text was Sumerian and destroyed language ability. In this case instead it hijacks the voluntary mind with a nearly unbreakable command. For example, in one scene:
One day, as a tall handsome barista delivered coffees to their cafe table, Sashona opened her mouth and a snarl of unintelligible words tripped out. “Love me,” Shashona said, and the barista spilled the coffee and went away and came back to ask for Sashona’s phone number.
What it reminded me of is something from the old Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks, a spell called Charm Persons that would allow a magic user to perform a sort of fancy hypnotism. Barry pushes it to a place of extreme hard science, however, as he considers just what would this ability might tempt a sufficiently ruthless person to do. Many logistical barriers go away, since enough persuasion, money and power are there for the taking. Those who have been indoctrinated live their lives under an assumed name (the names of noted poets) and they must sacrifice normal human relationships to avoid making themselves targets of compromise. The one we get to know the most, “Tom Eliot” says at one point:
“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire.”
One of the stronger points of this book is the setting, with the best scenes being the ones set in Broken Hill, a rural Australian town just off the desert. The combination of this land of extremes with a powerful metalinguistic artifact turns it into a place of mass catastrophe. Later on in the book, we find out what kind of ultimate goal the leader had in creating this thing, but by then we have already made up our minds that they have to be stopped. We see Broken Hill both as it was before the destruction and afterwards, plus the author takes a kind of savage glee in showing how the authorities and news media arrange to cover up just what happened in the town.
Early on in this book the reader witnesses a scene of physical torture that signals that this is the kind of book that plans to push some boundaries beyond what one sees in more conventional thrillers. We see the story through the eyes of two of the main characters, Wil Parke, an amnesiac trying to figure out why people are trying to kill him, and Emily Ruff, a con artist recruited because of her special talent for manipulation. These two share the kind of tenacity one would need to put up with violent and seemingly amoral agents of a shadowy organization. Cleverly, the author has us nearly convinced that there is no past connection between the two up until rather late in the game when we have committed to their well-being and the bloody climax is bearing down on them both, just the way it should in any proper thriller. For when it comes to popular literature, we the readers are the ones who willingly compromise ourselves with an author who know just how to weave that spell around us.
Rich Magahiz is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read his complete bio here.