I wish I liked this book more. Every once in a while I’ll finish reading a narrative that leaves me with a sense that something is missing, but I can’t quite identity what it is. With Max Barry’s Lexicon, with a fascinating premise and many good qualities as a story, I don’t know what is missing but it bothered me for days after finishing.
The two plot lines run parallel and for a majority of the text, you don’t know how they’re related or whether they will connect. We start with Wil Parke, a young man ambushed by two secret agents in an airport bathroom. They claim he has knowledge of an important secret but he has no idea what they’re talking about. There’s a great chase scene through the airport but eventually Wil is kidnapped and taken hostage by one of the agents who intends to return Wil to Broken Hill, Australia, in order to help Wil remember what he’s forgotten. Along the way, the agent, Tom, code for Thomas Stearns Eliot, demonstrates his powers of persuasion and the effects nonsense words can have on others if used correctly.
On the other hand, there’s Emily Ruff, an orphan who ages from sixteen to her early twenties during her education. She is recruited to a prestigious institution in Virginia where students are taught how to persuade. Those who successfully learn the art of coercion graduate as “poets,” the most skilled language-users of this organization. Emily is the best, until she makes a colossal mistake and falls in love.
Throughout this book, while you’re waiting for the plotlines to converge, you’re Wil. You have no idea what’s going on or why your entire hometown has been blown off the map, but you’re constantly involved in high-speed car chases or gunfights or explosions. Although eventually the pieces fall into place, I thought it took a bit too long for Barry to get to the point. I also felt as though his random use of sex was wholly unnecessary; it did nothing to advance the plot and seemed as though most of it was thrown in for the shock value of demonstrating how persuasive the poets were, as though convincing people to kill themselves or each other wasn’t shocking enough.
Barry continually tells us that the poets are extremely dangerous but he never goes into enough detail about why they are or how their powers work. And as for the strings of nonsense words thrown in without explanation, I felt annoyed every time I saw them appear. There were no translations or reason given for using them. We were not told how or why these words appeared in the language of the poets or what their purposes were. In fact, we were given almost no explanation behind the lexicon of poets at all. I thought that would have been an important point in the narrative.
Ultimately, even though the ending might’ve been cut short by about 50 pages, the convergence of plotlines was interesting and a little unexpected, but I still felt as though something was missing. If you’re looking for an entertaining read that will spell out the answers for you eventually, not unlike an Encyclopedia Brown book, then check out Lexicon. If you don’t feel like wrapping your head around the lack of whys, feel free to leave it alone.