Summary from Goodreads:
At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics–at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as “poets”, adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive. Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school’s strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Bronte, Eliot, and Lowell–who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he’s done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.
As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry’s most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love–whatever the cost.
So I had a coupon and decided to buy this back in November, actually chuckling to myself in the store, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the book in the first Book Riot Quarterly box is Lexicon?” And, lo, it was. So I kept the Book Riot copy – complete with a letter and sticky notes from Max Barry – and gifted the other one to my brother and sister-in-law (I had SIL hooked when I asked if she’d like a novel where people learn mind control through language – she practically grabbed it out of my hands).
The world of Lexicon is very inventive and ruthless. The school is creepy as hell. Everyone is a hustler, you don’t know who is trustworthy or if the old guy in the corner will turn out to be a segmented zombie who will try and kill you. You like and loathe all characters in equal parts. Well, except Will and Eliot, poor sod, who both become far more likeable as the book goes along. And Yeats, whom you never want near you, ever (but the real Yeats wasn’t a picnic, either, so not a loss). Even Emily is hard to like (and she’s a terrible hustler, in my opinion, since we never really get to see her successfully work a crowd).
The denouement of the book is pretty genius. Narrative folds and twists in on itself until the two timelines become impossible to separate. Naming the town “Broken Hill” was a great idea, calling to mind the “Broken Arrow” scenario of an isolated nuclear incident. I did wonder why Charlotte Bronte was chosen as a Poet name instead of Emily Bronte – Emily was the better poet, Charlotte the better novelist.. Perhaps due to name confusion with the protagonist Emily.
Apologies to Max Barry – I couldn’t read this slowly, as he asked in his note. But, since Lexicon is the first of his novels that I’ve read, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more.