Lexicon by Max Barry

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These words are infecting you, one letter at a time. If William S. Burroughs was right, and “language is a virus,” then Max Barry’s Lexicon turns the idea into the literal truth. Each symbol your eyes are scanning right now helps to convey meaning, image, and context. The symbols are drawing on the entire history of human language to make sense of these words. If we’re running a human OS system, then letters and words are the primary programming bits and, in Barry’s world, some people know the backdoors.

What Lexicon imagines is that there are people in the world who have decoded the BIOS system humanity runs on and decided to hack it. These people who can manipulate your core programming OS, who can control you with words, are called Poets. They operate like the men in black, appearing mysteriously, erasing memories and finally making you forget they appeared or erased anything to begin with. The shadowy purpose of this organization of Poets is unclear, but their methods are not. With the application of neurolinguistic programming, market research and data collection, they’ve narrowed down the human race to a handful of personality types. Knowing these types, they’ve figured out how each works and what passwords give access to those minds.

You want someone to give you a free Slurpee? Sleep with you? Fall in love with you? All you need to do is understand their personality template and say the seemingly magic words. Lexicon is an engine of big ideas built into the chassis of a thriller. Like all thrillers, the perfect plans of the conspiratorial organization inevitably run up against those who would set them awry. Enter Emily Ruff and Wil Parke.

We open in media res with Wil as he’s being hauled out of an airport bathroom by armed men. They’ve stuck a needle into his eye and they keep insisting he’s someone he isn’t. The trouble is that they may be right. These gunmen seem to know a great deal about Wil, starting with the fact that Wil isn’t actually Wil but an amnesiac from Australia.

Meanwhile, a street hustler and three-card monty sharp named Emily Ruff encounters a recruiter for The Academy, the training facility which turns out new Poets whose codenames are those of greats like Eliot, Bronte and Yeats. The organization sees something in Emily, and soon her life of undisciplined grifting is traded for the academic study of codified manipulation. She’s in college, but not a college like any we’ve seen before—love is forbidden, and using what you learn is taboo.

As Emily and Wil work their way through the peeling layers of the plot, we begin to realize that the thriller concepts are just the sugar to make the medicine go down. Lexicon may be written in the style of a breakneck thriller, but it’s exploring themes familiar from Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs. How much of who we are is the product of language? Is there any essential person inside or just a code, one that can be learned and then altered? Barry concerns himself with the post-9/11 world of data collection, surveillance and the corporatization of both. As he observes in the novel, we no longer have to worry about the NSA collecting our information since we so willingly give it away on Facebook and Twitter.

Max Barry

Max Barry

Every modern technological act seems one of exposure, of the gradual erosion of the barrier between the public and private space. If we are more than simply a collection of programming commands, Barry seems to argue we aren’t acting that way. The more data we give up, the more refined the invisible apparatuses of demographic processing become until, like in his novel, the entire human condition may be discussed in no more flavors than the latte choices at Starbucks. When this happens, we’ve reached a dangerous point where people are their Facebook likes and Tweets, and words become toxic memes.

Of course, the toxic meme which serves as the MacGuffin for Lexicon is no metaphor. In Broken Hill, Australia, something has driven people mad. The entire town was destroyed as people killed each other in the streets until a quarantine was erected. What caused this? Emily and Wil lie at the heart of that revelation. I found it satisfying, knowing in a kind of postmodern way that the very form the book takes, that of a thriller, carries with it its own language, tropes and codifications. There’s gunplay and chases aplenty, as well as double-crosses and twists, but all in the service of more than just an entertaining read. Barry is spelunking the modern condition with its ubiquitous, elastic Internet now. No doubt on the front page of this very site is an ad targeted at your specific data set. Perhaps even reading this review is helping to refine the demographic that the mysterious “they” want to use to define you.

The end result is the loss not just of privacy but of identity. The book illustrates a frighteningly plausible world in which the main characters operate sans a self, in what Daniel C. Dennett has called “a benign user illusion.” Barry’s characters may be running games on others, but others are running similar games on them. Everyone is reduced to a program, a type, a set of codes to be rekeyed for convenience. It’s really this struggle, the struggle to maintain an individual identity, that drives the thematic motor of the book. Can Emily and Wil ever be sure that love is real when they now know they can be programmed to love someone? Can they be sure they are real when they know identities can be erased and overwritten like a hard drive?

While our present reality does not pose these questions in such literal terms, the rich history of science fiction has always involved the blunt use of metaphor to investigate the pressing issues of the day. Barry does this with excitement, strong writing and more than a little nod and wink to the reader. His characters have the means to wrestle with these issues in the confines of the stylized world of a thriller. We, on the other hand, grapple with more subtle forms of manipulation—not the least of which may be our own willing participation. Where gunfights and chases and true love might be viable solutions for characters on the page, we face an infinitely more complex array of daily choices, Many of these are reduced to a series of clicks. Perhaps, with the right combination of these clicks, we might get lucky and become a demographic of one. In a world like Barry’s, that may be the closest thing we have left to being human.

Chris Lites is finishing his MA in Creative Writing at DePaul Univesity. He doesn't have many credits to brag about yet. When he does, he will be sure to e-mail them to each and everyone one of you individually along with a current X-ray of his head to show you the ideas certainly don't come from there. More from this author →