Over the course of four previous novels, Max Barry has proven himself a gonzo satirist and a black-comedy inclined futurist of no mean abilities. Deadly funny, with barbs of cultural commentary hidden within his absurdity. As with all such writers—Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, Kurt Vonnegut, Will Self, Christopher Moore and George Saunders, for instance—this exaggerative, extrapolative talent means he also has his sensitive fingertips securely fastened to the pulse of the present, whose more uncanny dimensions he also often explores. For it is only the keen analysis and tracking of “what is” that provides the solid foundation from which “what might be” (however outrageous) can believably arise.
Barry’s attention this time around, in the slipstreamy thriller Lexicon, has been captured by a fascinating aspect of our contemporary scene that can be most succinctly described as “persuasion.” Although the words brain-washing, marketing, hypnotism, false flag, duplicity, deceit, fraud, Ponzi scheme and coercion come into play also.
How is it that people can be convinced to buy a quantifiably inferior product or to favor one lousy idea over another? How can voters be made to endorse policies that are actually against their own objectively stated best interests? How can some people rise to heights of demagoguery, blinding everyone to their flaws for a time, only to crash and burn? How many of our likes and dislikes are hardwired? Has society become any smarter about detecting inauthentic, harmful deceptions than we were when Lincoln uttered his famous quote about the susceptibility of people to being fooled?
(Curiously enough, these are almost the exact same set of core questions posed by another classic novel in the genre, The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, though Barry’s novel does not end up resembling its predecessor much at all, except in cousinly fashion.)
Barry’s answer to these questions involves a single, comprehensive fantastical conceit which he then brilliantly elaborates along every possible angle. To put his thesis simplistically: there exists a conspiracy of people who exhibit paranormal powers, through their special verbal skills, of hotwiring the human brain for their own specific purposes. And they are utterly self-serving in deploying their almost magical skills.
The novel kicks off propulsively with a drugging, a bizarre interrogation and a kidnapping. Wil Parke, a seemingly average nobody, is snaffled up in an airport restroom by two mysterious men who seem to believe that he is a unique specimen of humanity who holds the key to their mysterious, unspecified mission. Immediately pursued by the nebulous deadly opposition—Wil and the reader are kept in the delicious dark for many chapters—Wil and his captors finds themselves in a mortal chase scenario that might have sprung from Hitchcock out of Ludlum.
In parallel chapters we are introduced to a sixteen-year-old homeless hustler named Emily Ruff. (And does her last name possibly pay sly homage to author Matt Ruff, whose books, especially the recent Bad Monkeys, exist companionably at the same end of the literary spectrum as Barry’s?) One day Emily finds herself recruited from the streets by an enigmatic organization and sent to a special school. There she begins to learn the neurolinguistic and metaphilosophical technics that will allow her to become a “poet,” the honorific which the adepts grant themselves for what they do: “segment and compromise” the sheepish masses. Upon graduation, the poets are given new identities, taking the names of famous and mostly dead bards. Heading the organization is the poet supreme, Yeats, a truly scary mutant type, flensed of all normal human foibles. Emily is to become Virginia Woolf. One of Wil’s abductors, we soon learn, is the renegade poet name Tom Eliot. (This motif, I must sadly report, comes a cropper only when “Patty” not “Patti” Smith is referenced. Ouch!)
What Barry cleverly conceals at first is a certain time disjuncture between the two narrative tracks: Emily is all grown up and super-proficient by the realtime of Wil’s shanghaiing. But even when revealed, this continuing chronological split does not hinder our enjoyment of the tale, but rather enhances it, as we eagerly follow Emily’s unfolding backstory to learn what turned her into the present-day monster. And Barry is incredibly empathetic and insightful into Emily’s twisted biography. Her maturation into misguided yet not amoral sorceress seems predestined, but also a reflection of her own imperfect soul and freewill choices.
Experienced readers will certainly discern echoes in Barry’s book of previous riffs on the motif of infectious language. There are implicit nods to everything from William Burroughs’s “Language is a virus from outer space” to Monty Python’s “Killer Joke” routine; from Max Headroom’s “blipverts” to the deadly videotape of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But Barry’s tale nonetheless comes off as exceedingly original, a consolidation and ramping up of this trope. First, he incorporates the latest findings from brain science that make the whole affair seem entirely plausible, in the manner of a more breezy Douglas Hofstadter. The institutionalization embraced by the poets recalls the work of another Douglas: namely, Coupland. Barry’s always had his needle out for big business, and the bureaucracy surrounding the machinations of the poets reflects the banality of power. One droll section finds Emily at a desk job like any other cubicle drone. But it’s an assignment that leads ultimately to the death of three thousand people. Emily’s time at the school for poets also illustrates this theme: the place is the anti-Hogwarts in terms of glamour, as we’re meant to realize when Emily complains about her boring studies, “I though it would be like magic.” And of course, this whole academic riff also brings to mind the X-Men and their famous school as well.
Barry also wields a sharp scalpel on the internet and our relentlessly data-gathering society. His dovetailing of the schemes of the poets with current cyberculture practices is so believably congruent that the reader will find herself looking over her shoulder, or at her keyboard, with new suspicions. Interpolated into the main narrative are bits and pieces of documents and news reports which further convincingly buttress the notion of bad things being swept under the carpet.
Barry does not neglect the human dimension in any of this. As mentioned earlier, his depiction of Emily is wise and deep. Wil and Tom Eliot and Yeats get similar attentions, though Emily remains the star. Additionally, Barry invokes the famous fairytale “The Snow Queen” when Emily undergoes a crisis that leaves her with a metaphysical but deadly splinter in her eye. This mythic dimension also extends to the love story between Emily and Harry, a man she meets when in exile from the poets, and to the prehistorical lineage of the Tower-of-Babel-building “dead poets society.” In short, Barry provides both mundane thrills and a, ahem, poetic subtext.
Like Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Max Barry’s Lexicon takes our contemporary world and skews it laterally, opening up a rabbit hole compounded of shock, enlightenment and ontological quicksand, down which his characters and readers plunge, willy nilly, equally frightened and exhilarated, begging breathlessly for an end to the ride before hoping to go again.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.