Lexicon

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Overview

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “poets,” and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.
 
Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card Monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts ...

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Lexicon: A Novel

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Overview

At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “poets,” and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.
 
Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card Monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. Drawn in to their strage world, which is populated by people named Brontë and Eliot, she learns their key rule: That every person can be classified by personality type, his mind segmented and ultimately unlocked by the skilful application of words. For this reason, she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy, until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.
 
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an “outlier,” immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organization and its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if ancient stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power.
 
A brilliant thriller that traverses very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data-collection, connecting them to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, Lexicon is Max Barry’s most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Until the academy recruiters found her, 16-year-old Emily Ruff was just a streetwise San Francisco three-card Monte hustler. Her new handlers recognized that her uncanny talent for persuasion made her an ideal candidate for their exclusive school, which specialized not in math or history, but in controlling people's minds. Her descent into the strange world of warring secret agents who call themselves Poets is only half the story: At its opposite pole is carpenter Wil Clarke, who wakes up in an airport being questioned by strangers. Max Barry's new satire/thriller balances both elements so cunningly that it's difficult to tell which element will gain dominance.

The Washington Post - Graham Sleight
Once you accept the premise of Lexicon…this is an extremely slick and readable thriller…The conspiracy thriller is, of course, a common genre these days. In some ways it's an attractive notion that there might be a secret society nestling within the visible world, perceptible only to initiates…Barry's particular addition to the genre is a corrosive wit.
Publishers Weekly
The fate of humanity is at stake in this ambitious satirical thriller from Australian author Barry (Machine Man). Picked off the streets of San Francisco after displaying a “natural aptitude” for persuasion, 16-year-old magician/hustler Emily Ruff joins a group of prodigies at “the Academy,” where “poets” learn the magic of controlling others’ minds with words.Meanwhile, hapless Wil Parke, the key player in an internal war between highly trained poets called Eliot and Woolf, is the only person known to survive the infamous “bareword” Woolf set loose in Broken Hill, Australia, two years before—an event that killed thousands and wiped Wil’s memory clean. Eliot believes Wil to be the only one capable of stopping this word that “can persist... like an echo,” and is determined to use Wil in his quest to elucidate the word’s elemental code. Emily’s story and Wil’s story converge in a violent denouement that amuses as much as it shocks. (June)
Salon
Part of the brilliance of this bizarre premise is that it's extrapolated from such realities as psychological classification and market research that customizes language to cater to and manipulate specific populations. In other words, "Lexicon" is only somewhat far-fetched — until, that is, the characters stumble upon a word of outrageous and sinister potency and the race becomes one to rule — or save — the world. (June)
http://boingboing.net/ - Boing Boing
It's a pitch-perfect thriller, a jetpack of a plot that rocketed me from page one to page 400 in a single afternoon, and it kept me guessing right up to the end. Imagine Dan Brown written by someone a lot smarter and better at characterization and at hand-waving the places where the science shades into science fiction, and you've got something like Lexicon.
www.washingtonpost.com
Lexicon" is a strange combination of romance, thriller and science fiction. Imagine blending the works of Neal Stephenson with Michael Chabon and the end result would come close to the world envisioned by Barry. The words brilliant and exemplary aren't adequate enough to convey the amazing craft of "Lexicon Associated Press"
Booklist
...An absolutely first-rate, suspenseful thriller with convincing characters who invite readers' empathy and keep them turning pages until the satisfying conclusion.
Time
Imagine, if you will, a secret group of people called Poets who have the power to control others simply by speaking to them. Barry has, and the result is an extraordinarily fast, funny, cerebral thriller.
Kirkus Reviews
Modern-day sorcerers fight a war of words in this intensely analytical yet bombastic thriller. Barry (Machine Man, 2011, etc.) is usually trying to be the funny guy in the world of postmodern satire, with arrows keenly aimed at corporate greed and how to make it in advertising. Apparently, our Australian comrade has changed his mind, racing up alongside the likes of Neal Stephenson with this smart, compelling, action-packed thriller about the power of words. In a deft narrative move, Barry parallels two distinct storylines before bringing them together with jaw-dropping surprises. In the first, a carpenter named Wil is jumped in an airport bathroom by a pair of brutal agents who kill his girlfriend and kidnap him for reasons unknown. In a storyline a few years back, we meet a smart, homeless grifter named Emily Ruff on the streets of San Francisco. After a run-in with a mark, Emily is invited to train under the auspices of a mysterious international syndicate known as "The Poets." The shady peddlers of influence and power force Emily to study words as if they were a source of incredible power--and in the hands of gifted prodigies like Emily, they are. What could have been a sly attempt to satirize postmodern marketing and social media becomes something of a dark fantasy as couplets intended merely to influence become spell-like incantations with the power to kill. Back in America with Wil and his new captor, Elliot, we learn that Wil is the sole survivor of a terminal event in rural Australia and is being relentlessly pursued by Woolf, the perpetrator of the attack in Oz. In the background, the cult's mysterious leader, Yeats, pulls strings that put everyone at risk, and no one turns out to be who we imagined. An up-all-night thriller for freaks and geeks who want to see their wizards all grown up in the real world and armed to the teeth in a bloody story.
Library Journal
What if there was a word that could compel anyone to do anything? That's the premise of Barry's new novel (after Machine Man), which posits a secret society of "poets" who collect and wield special words to control others. Emily Ruff, a teenager living on the street, has been recruited by the organization but leaves in seeming disgrace. Years later, Wil Parke is caught in a firefight between the factions—over him. He is the only survivor of a horrifying event unleashed by an ultimate word of power. But there is a deeper connection between Wil and Emily and the organization that comes between them. While that link isn't hard to figure out, Barry keeps the tension high as another poet, Eliot, tries to stop the unfolding destruction. Barry's fear of conspiracies and the corporatization of society are in play here, along with a new focus on his exploration of power and corruption—religion. VERDICT Lexicon isn't as satirical as Barry's other works, but it is a scary and satisfying blend of thriller, dystopia, and horror.—Devon Thomas, Chelsea, MI
The Barnes & Noble Review

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 brainwashing, 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 that 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 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 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 named 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 3,000 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 that 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 prehistoric 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.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594205385
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/18/2013
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 91,124
  • Product dimensions: 6.64 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

Max Barry

Max Barry is the author of Syrup (1999), Jennifer Government (2003), Company (2006), and Machine Man (2011). He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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Read an Excerpt

"He's coming around."
  "Their eyes always do that."
  The world was blurry. There was a pressure in his right eye. He said, Urk.
  "Fuck!"
  "Get the—"
  "It's too late, forget it. Take it out."
  "It's not too late. Hold him." A shape grew in his vision. He smelled alcohol and stale urine. "Wil? Can you hear me?"
  He reached for his face, to brush away whatever was pressing there.
  "Get his—"
  Fingers closed around his wrist. "Wil, it's important that you not touch your face."
  "Why is he conscious?"
  "I don't know."
  "You fucked something up."
  "I didn't. Give me that."
  A rustling. He said, Hnnn. Hnnnn.
  "Stop moving." He felt breath in his ear, hot and intimate. "There is a needle in your eyeball. Do not move."
  He did not move. Something trilled, something electronic. "Ah,shit, shit."
  "What?"
  "They're here."
  "Already?"
  "Two of them, it says. We have to go."
  "I'm already in."
  "You can't do it while he's conscious. You'll fry his brain."
  "I probably won't."
  He said, "Pubbaleeese doo nut kill mee."
  An unsnapping of clasps. "I'm doing it."
  "You can't do it while he's conscious, and we're out of time, and he probably isn't even the guy."
  "If you're not helping, move out of the way."
  Wil said, "I . . . need . . . to . . . sneeze."
  "Sneezing would be a bad move at this point, Wil." Weight descended on his chest. His vision darkened. His eyeball moved slightly.
  "This may hurt."
  A snick. A low electronic whine. A rail spike drove into his brain.
  He screamed.
  "You're toasting him."
  "You're okay, Wil. You're okay."
  "He's . . . aw, he's bleeding from his eye."
  "Wil, I need you to answer a few questions. It's important that you answer truthfully. Do you understand?"
  No no no—
  "First question. Would you describe yourself as more of a dog person or cat person?"
  What—
  "Come on, Wil. Dog or cat?"
  "I can't read this. This is why we don't do it when they're conscious."
  "Answer the question. The pain stops when you answer the questions."
  Dog! he screamed. Dog please dog!
  "Was that dog?"
  "Yeah. He tried to say dog."
  "Good. Very good. One down. What's your favorite color?"
  Something chimed. "Fuck! Oh, fuck me!"
  "What?"
  "Wolf's here!"
  "That can't be right."
  "It says it right fucking here!"
  "Show me."
  Blue! he screamed into silence.
  "He responded. You see?"
  "Yes, I saw! Who cares? We have to leave. We have to leave."
  "Wil, I want you to think of a number between one and a hundred."
  "Oh, Jesus."
  "Any number you like. Go on."
  I don't know—
  "Concentrate, Wil."
  "Wolf is coming and you're dicking around with a live probe on the wrong guy. Think about what you're doing."
  Four I choose four—
  "Four."
  "I saw it."
  "That's good, Wil. Only two questions left. Do you love your family?"
  Yes no what kind of a—
  "He's all over the place."
  I don't have—I guess yes I mean yes everybody loves—
  "Wait, wait. Okay. I see it. Christ, that's weird."
  "One more question. Why did you do it?"
  What—I don't—
  "Simple question, Wil. Why'd you do it?"
  Do what do what what what—
  "Borderline. As in, borderline on about eight different segments. I'd be guessing."
  I don't know what you mean I didn't do anything I swear I've never done anything to anyone except except I once knew a girl—
  "There."
  "Yeah. Yeah, okay."
  A hand closed over his mouth. The pressure in his eyeball intensified, became a sucking. They were pulling out his eyeball. No: It was the needle, withdrawing. He shrieked, possibly. Then the pain was gone. Hands pulled him upward. He couldn't see. He wept for his poor abused eyeball. But it was still there. It was there.
  Blurry shapes loomed in fog. "What," Wil said.
  "Coarg medicity nighten comense," said the taller shape. "Hop on one foot."
  Wil squinted, confused.
  "Huh," said the shorter shape. "Maybe it is him."

They filled a sink with water and pushed his face into it. He surfaced, gasping. "Don't soak his clothes," said the tall man.
  He was in a restroom. An airport. He had come off the 3:05 p. m. from Chicago, where the aisle seat had been occupied by a large man in a Hawaiian shirt Wil couldn't bear to wake. At first, the restroom had appeared closed for cleaning, but the janitor had removed the sign and Wil had jagged toward it gratefully. He had reached the urinal, unzipped, experienced relief.
  The door had opened. A tall man in a beige coat had come in. There were half a dozen free urinals, Wil at one end, but the man chose the one beside him. Moments passed and the tall man did not pee. Wil, emptying at high velocity, felt a twinge of compassion. He had been there. The door had opened again. A second man entered and locked the door.
  Wil had put himself back in his pants. He had looked at the man beside him, thinking—this was funny, in retrospect—that whatever was happening here, whatever specific danger was implied by a man entering a public restroom and fucking locking it, at least Wil and the tall man were in it together. At least it was two against one. Then he had realized Shy Bladder Guy's eyes were calm and deep and kind of beautiful, actually, but the key point being calm as in unsurprised, and Shy Bladder Guy had seized his head and propelled him into the wall.
  Then the pain, and questions.
  "Have to get this blood out of his hair," said the short man. He attacked Wil's face with paper towels. "His eye looks terrible."
  "If they get close enough to see his eyes, we have bigger problems."
  The tall man was wiping his hands with a small white cloth, giving attention to each finger. He was thin and dark-skinned and Wil was no longer finding his eyes quite so beautiful. He was getting more of a cold, soulless kind of vibe. Like those eyes could watch terrible things and not look away. "So, Wil, you with us? You can walk and talk?"
  "Fuck," he said, "orrffff." It didn't come out like he meant. His head felt loose.
  "Good," said the tall man. "So here's the deal. We need to get out of this airport in minimum time with minimum fuss. I want your cooperation with that. If I fail to receive it, I'm going to make things bad for you. Not because I have anything against you, particularly, but I need you motivated. Do you understand?"
  "I'm not . . ." He searched for the word. Rich? Kidnappable? "Anybody. I'm a carpenter. I make decks. Balconies. Gazebos."
  "Yes, that's why we're here, your inimitable work with gazebos. You can forget the act. We know who you are. And they know who you are, and they're here, so let's get the fuck out while we can."
  He took a moment to choose his words, because he had the feeling he would get only one more shot at this. "My name is Wil Parke. I'm a carpenter. I have a girlfriend and she's waiting out front to pick me up. I don't know who you think I am, or why you stuck a . . . a thing in my eye, but I'm nobody. I promise you I'm nobody."
  The short man had been packing equipment into a brown satchel,and now he slung it around one shoulder and peered into Wil's face. He had thinning hair and anxious brows. Wil might have pegged him for an accountant, ordinarily.
  "I tell you what," Wil said. "I'll go into a stall and close the door. Twenty minutes. I'll wait twenty minutes. It'll be like we never met."
  The short man glanced at the tall man.
  "I'm not the guy," Wil said. "I am not the guy."
  "The problem with that little plan, Wil," said the tall man, "is that if you stay here, in twenty minutes you'll be dead. If you go to your girlfriend, who I'm sorry to say you can no longer trust, you'll also be dead. If you do anything other than come with us now, quickly and cooperatively, again, I'm afraid, dead. It may not seem like it, but we are the only people who can save you from that." His eyes searched Wil's. "I can see, though, that you're not finding this very persuasive, so let me switch to a more direct method." He held open his coat. Nestled against his side, nose down in a thigh holster, was a short, wide shotgun. It made no sense, because they were in an airport.
  "Come or I will shoot you through the fucking kidneys."
  "Yes," Wil said. "Okay, you make a good point. I'll cooperate." The key was to get out of the restroom. The airport was full of security. Once he was out, a push, a yell, some running: This was how he would escape.
  "Nope," said the short man.
  "No," agreed the tall man. "I see it. Dope him up."

A door opened. On the other side of it was a world of stunted color and muted sound, as if something was stuck in Wil's ears, and eyes, and possibly brain. He shook his head to clear it, but the world grew dark and angry and would not stay upright. The world did not like to be shaken. He understood that now. He wouldn't shake it again. He felt his feet sliding away from him on silent roller skates and reached for a wall for support. The wall cursed and dug its fingers into his arm, and was probably not a wall. It was probably a person.
  "You gave him too much," said the person.
  "Safe than sorry," said another person. They were bad persons, Wil recalled. They were kidnapping him. He felt angry about this, although in a technical kind of way, like taking a stand on principle. He tried to reel in his roller skate feet.
  "Jesus," muttered a person, the tall one with calm eyes. Wil didn't like this person. He'd forgotten why. No. It was the kidnapping. "Walk."
  He walked, resentfully. There were important facts in his brain but he couldn't find them. Everything was moving. A stream of airport people broke around him. Everyone going somewhere. Wil had been going somewhere. Meeting someone. To his left, a bird twittered. Or a phone. The short man squinted at a screen. "Rain."
  "Where?"
  "Domestic Arrivals. Right ahead." Wil found this idea amusing: rain in the terminal. "Do we know a Rain?"
  "Yeah. Girl. New."
  "Shit," said the short man. "I hate shooting girls."
  "You get used to it," said the tall man.
  A young couple passed, gripping hands. Lovers. The concept seemed familiar. "This way," said the tall man, steering Wil into a bookstore. He came face-to-face with a shelf that said NEW RELEASES. Wil's feet kept skating and he put out a hand to catch himself and felt a sharp pain.
  "Problem?"
  "Possibly nothing," murmured the tall man, "or possibly Rain, passing behind us now, in a blue summer dress."
  In glossy covers, a reflection skipped by. Wil was trying to figure out what had stabbed him. It was a loose wire in the NEW RELEASES sign. The interesting thing was that being stabbed had helped to clear the fog in his head.
  "Busiest part of any store, always the new releases," said the tall man. "That's what attracts people. Not the best. The new. Why is that, Wil, do you think?"
  Wil pricked himself with the wire. He was too tentative, could hardly feel it, and so tried again, harder. This time a blade of pain swept through his mind. He remembered needles and questions. His girlfriend, Cecilia, was out front in a white SUV. She would be in a two-minute parking bay; they had arranged that carefully. He was late, because of these guys.
  "I think we're good," said the short man.
  "Make sure." The short man moved away. "All right, Wil," said the tall man. "In a few moments, we're going to cross the hall and walk down some stairs. There will be a little circumnavigating of passenger jets, then we'll board a nice, comfortable twelve-seater. There will be snacks. Drinks, if you're thirsty." The tall man glanced at him. "Still with me?"
  Wil grabbed the man's face. He had no plan for what to do next, so wound up just hanging on to the guy's head and staggering backward until he tripped over a cardboard display. The two of them went down in a tangle of beige coat and scattered books. Run, Wil thought, and yes, that was a solid idea. He found his feet and ran for the exit. In the glass he saw a wild-eyed man and realized it was him. He heard yelps and alarmed voices, possibly the tall man getting up, who had a shotgun, Wil recalled now, a shotgun, which was not the kind of thing you would think could slip your memory.
  He stumbled out into an ocean of bright frightened faces and open mouths. It was hard to remember what he was doing. His legs threatened treachery but the motion was good, helping to clear his head. He saw escalators and forged toward them. His back sang with potential shotgun impacts, but the airport people were being very good about moving out of his way, practically throwing themselves aside, for which he was grateful. He reached the escalators but his roller skate feet kept going and he fell flat on his back. The ceiling moved slowly by. The tiles up there were filthy. They were seriously disgusting.
  He sat up, remembering Cecilia. Also the shotgun. And, now he thought about it, how about some security? Where were they? Because it was an airport. It was an airport. He grabbed the handrail, intending to pull himself up to look for security, but his knees went in opposite directions and he tumbled down the rest of the way. Body parts telegraphed complaints from faraway places. He rose. Sweat ran into his eyes. Because the head fog wasn't confusing enough; he needed blurred vision. But he could see light, which meant exit, which meant Cecilia, so he ran on. Someone shouted. The light grew. Frigid air burst around him as if he'd plunged into a mountain lake and he sucked it into his lungs. Snow, he saw. It was snowing. Flakes like tiny stars.
  "Help, guy with gun," he said to a man who looked like a cop but on reflection was probably directing cabs. Orange buses. Parking bays. The two-minute spaces were just a little farther. He almost collided with a trolley-laden family and the man tried to grab his jacket but he kept running and it was starting to make sense, now, running; he was starting to remember how to coordinate the various pieces of his body, and he threw a glance over his shoulder and a pole ran into him.
  He tasted blood. Someone asked if he was okay, some kid pulling earbuds out of his hair. Wil stared. He didn't understand the question. He had run into a pole and all his thoughts had fallen out. He groped for them and found Cecilia. He raised his body like a wreck from the deep and shoved aside the kid and rode forward on a crest of the kid's abuse. He finally saw it, Cecilia's car, a white fortress on wheels with VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS on the rear window. Joy drove his steps. He wrenched open the handle and fell inside. He had never been so proud. "Made it," he gasped. He closed his eyes.
  "Wil?"
  He looked at Cecilia. "What?" He began to feel unsure, because her face was strange. And then it came to him, in a fountain of dread that began somewhere unidentifiable and ended in his testicles: He should not be here. He should not have led men with guns to is girlfriend. That was a stupid thing to do. He felt furious with himself, and dismayed, because it had been so hard to get here, and now he had to run again.
  "Wil, what's wrong?" Her fingers came at him. "Your nose is bleeding." There was a tiny furrow in her brow, which he knew very well and was sad to leave.
  "I ran into a pole." He reached for the latch. The longer he sat here, the closer the fog pressed.
  "Wait! Where are you going?"
  "Away. Have to—"
  "Sit down!"
  "Have to go."
  "Then I'll drive you somewhere! Stay in your seat!"
  That was an idea. Driving. "Yes."
  "You'll stay if I drive?" "Yes."
  She reached for the ignition. "Okay. Just . . . stay. I'll take you to a hospital or something. All right?"
  "Yes." He felt relief. Weight stole through his body. He wondered if it was okay to slide into unconsciousness. It seemed out of his hands now. Cecilia would drive to safety. This car was a tank; he had mocked it before, because it was so big and she was so tiny but they were equally aggressive, and now it would save them. He might as well close his eyes a moment.
  When he opened them, Cecilia was looking at him. He blinked. He had the feeling he'd fallen asleep. "Why . . ." He sat up.
  "Shhh."
  "Are we moving?" They were not moving. "Why aren't we moving?"
  "Just stay in your seat, until they get here," Cecilia said. "That's the important thing."
  He turned in his seat. The glass was fogged over. He couldn't see what was out there. "Cecilia. Drive. Now."
  She tucked a wisp of hair behind one ear. She did that when she was remembering something. He could see her across a room, talking to somebody, and know she was relating a memory. "Remember the day you met my parents? You were freaking out because you thought we were going to be late. But we weren't. We weren't late, Wil."
  He rubbed condensation from the window. Through the whiteout, men in brown suits jogged toward him. "Drive! Cil! Drive!"
  "This is just like then," she said. "Everything's going to be fine."
  He lunged across her, groping for the ignition. "Where are the keys?"
  "I don't have them."
  "What?"
  "I don't have them anymore." She put a hand on his thigh. "Just sit with me a minute. Isn't the snow beautiful?"
  "Cil," he said. "Cil."
  There was a flash of dark movement and the door opened. Hands seized him. He fought the hands, but they were irresistible, and pulled him into the cold. He threw fists in all directions until something hard exploded across the back of his head, and then he was being borne on broad shoulders. Some time seemed to have passed in between, because it was darker. Pain rolled through his head in waves. He saw blacktop and a flapping coattail. "Fuck," said someone, with frustration. "Forget the plane. They can't wait for us any longer."
  "Forget the plane? Then what?"
  "Other side of those buildings, there's a fire path, take us to the freeway."
  "We drive? Are you kidding? They'll close the freeway."
  "Not if we're fast."
  "Not if we're . . .? " said the shorter man. "This is fucked! It's fucked because you wouldn't leave when I said!"
  "Shush," said the tall man. They stopped moving. The wind blew awhile. Then there was some running, and Wil heard an engine, a car stopping. "Out," said the tall man, and Wil was manhandled into a small vehicle. The short man came in behind him. A disco ball dangled from the mirror. A row of stuffed animals with enormous black eyes smiled at him from the dash. A blue rabbit held a flag on a stick, championing some country Wil didn't recognize. He thought he might be able to stab that into somebody's face. He reached for it but the short man got there first. "No," said the short man, confiscating the rabbit.
  The engine revved. "How'd it go with the girlfriend, Wil?" the tall man said. He steered the car around a pillar marked D3, which Wil recognized as belonging to the parking garage. "Are you ready to consider that we know what we're doing?"
  "This is a mistake," said the short man. "We should stay on foot."
  "The car is fine."
  "It's not fine. Nothing is fine." He had a short, angry-looking submachine gun in his lap. Wil had somehow not noticed that. "Wolf was on us from the start. They knew."
  "They didn't."
  "Brontë—"
  "Shut up."
  "Brontë fucked us!" said the short man. "She's fucked us and you won't see it!"
  The tall man aimed the car at a collection of low hangars and warehouse-like buildings. As they drew nearer, the wind picked up,spitting ice down the funnels made by their walls. The car shook. Wil, jammed between the two men, leaned on one, then the other.
  "This car sucks," said the short man.
  A small figure loomed out of the gloom ahead. A girl, wearing a blue dress. Her hair danced in the wind, but she was standing very still.
  The short man leaned forward. "Is that Rain?"
  "I think so."
  "Hit her." The engine whined. The girl grew in the windshield. Flowers on her dress, Wil saw. Yellow flowers.
  "Hit her!"
  "Ah, fuck," said the tall man, almost too quietly to hear, and the car began to scream. The world shifted. Weight forced Wil sideways. Things moved beyond the glass. A creature, a behemoth with searing eyes and silver teeth, fell upon them. The car bent and turned. The teeth were a grille, Wil realized, and the eyes headlights, because the creature was an SUV. It chewed the front of the car and bellowed and shook and ran into the brick wall. Wil put his arms around his head, because everything was breaking.
  He heard groans. Shuffling. The tick of the engine cooling. He raised his head. The tall man's shoes were disappearing through a jagged hole where the windshield had been. The short man was fumbling with his door latch, but in a way that suggested to Wil that he was having trouble making his hands do what he wanted. The interior of the car was oddly shaped. He tried to push something off his shoulder but it was the roof.
  The short man's door squealed and jammed. The tall man appeared on the other side and wrenched it open. The short man crawled out and looked back at Wil. "Come on."
  Wil shook his head.
  The short man breathed a curse. He went away and the tall man's face dipped into view. "Hey. Wil. Wil. Take a look to your right there. Lean forward a little. That's it. Can you see?"
   The side window was a half-peeled spiderweb, but beyond that he could see the vehicle that had attacked them. It was a white SUV. Its front was crumpled against the wall. Steam issued from around its bent front wheels. The sticker on the rear window said: VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS.
   "Your girlfriend just tried to kill us, Wil. She drove right at us. And I'm not sure if you can see from there, but she didn't even stop to put on a seat belt. That's how focused she was. Can you see her, Wil?"
   "No," he said. But he could.
   "Yes, and you need to get out of the car, because there are more where she came from. There are always more."
   He got out of the car. He was intending to punch the man in the jaw, knock him down and maybe choke the life out of him, watch those eyes go dim, but something snared his wrists. By the time he realized the short man was handcuffing him in white plastic, it was done. The tall man pushed him forward. "Walk."
   "No! No! Cecilia!"
   "She's dead," said the tall man. "Faster."
   "I'll kill you," Wil said.
   The short man jogged ahead of them, cradling his submachine gun. His head moved from side to side. He was probably looking for that girl, the one they'd called Rain. The girl who had stood like she was nailed to the blacktop, like she could stare down a car. "Utility van in the hangar there," said the short man. "May have keys."
   Some men in hard hats and overalls approached. The short man screamed at them to lie down and not fucking move. The tall man pulled open the door of a white van and put Wil in it. Wil swung around so that when the tall man followed him in, Wil could kick his teeth down his throat, but a flash of blue in the side mirror caught his eye. He peered at it. There was something blue crouched under a refueling truck. A blue dress.
   The van's side door was pulled open and the short man came in. He looked at Wil. "What?"
   Wil said nothing. The tall man started the engine. He had slid into the van without Wil noticing.
   "Wait up," said the short man. "He's seen something."
   The tall man glanced at him. "Did you?"
   "No," he said.
   "Shit," said the short man, and tumbled out of the van. Wil heard his footsteps. He didn't want to look at the side mirror, because the tall man was watching, but he glanced once and there was nothing there anymore. A few moments passed. There was a noise. The girl in the blue dress burst past Wil's window, startling him, her blond hair streaming. There was a hammer of gunfire. She fell bonelessly to the concrete.
   "Don't move," the tall man said to Wil.
   The short man came around the van and looked at them. The barrel of his gun was smoking. He looked at the girl and gave a short, barking laugh. "I got her!"
   Wil could see the girl's eyes. She was sprawled on her stomach, hair sprayed across her face, but he could still see that her eyes were the same blue as her dress. Dark blood stole across the concrete.
   "Fucking got her!" said the short man. "Holy shit! I nailed a poet!"
   The tall man revved the engine. "Let's go."
   The short man gestured: Wait. He moved closer to the girl, keeping his gun trained on her, as if there was some chance she might get up.
   She didn't move. He reached her and proddel her with his shoe.
   The girl's eyes shifted. "Contrex helo siq rattrak," she said, or something similar. "Shoot yourself."
   The short man brought the tip of his gun to his chin and pulled the trigger. His head snapped back. The tall man kicked open the van door and raised his shotgun to his shoulder. He discharged it at the girl. Her body jerked. The tall man walked forward, ejected the spent cartridge, and fired again. Thunder rolled around the hangar.
   By the time the tall man returned to the van, Wil was halfway out the door. "Back," said the tall man. His eyes were full of death and Wil saw clearly that they were now dealing in absolutes. This knowledge passed between them. Wil got back in the van. His bound hands pressed into his back. The tall man put the van into reverse, navigated around the two bodies, and accelerated into the night. He did not speak or look in Wil's direction. Wil watched buildings flit by without hope: He might have had a chance to escape, but that was over now.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 43 )
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(24)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 43 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 20, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    What an amazing book! The characters are so interesting. The wri

    What an amazing book! The characters are so interesting. The writing is hypnotically good.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2013

    This is a frightening, funny, page-turner of a book. "Are y

    This is a frightening, funny, page-turner of a book. "Are you a cat person or a dog person?" There is something sinister in that question... In a world where words can kill, an organization has developed a survey with which it can determine your segment and control you with words used as weapons. This book has it all - thrills, laughs, love, wit and a narrative style that is beyond clever. Terrific read. Satisfying in every way!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 18, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    It was very readable, but I feel like the author used a lot of s

    It was very readable, but I feel like the author used a lot of short cuts when he was writing this. It felt like something was missing - a level of depth that would have made it a more enjoyable read. I liked it, but it felt very shallow to me.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 3, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Liked it; didn't love it.  Good, not great.  While the concepts

    Liked it; didn't love it.  Good, not great.  While the concepts were intriguing and the characters well developed, something seemed to go awry in the telling.  It's entertaining enough, so read it and see!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2013

    The book opened great, and I thought it was going to be a great

    The book opened great, and I thought it was going to be a great puzzle. It just was too disjointed, jumped around so much that I couldn't figure out what time period the people were in, and I felt I was missing too much information to fill in the blanks. I almost didn't finish it several times but kept pushing myself through it. Should have been right up my alley.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2013

    This is an exceptionally good book. Original and superb. Very

    This is an exceptionally good book. Original and superb. Very difficult to describe. It certainly is a fast-paced thriller, but it is so much more than that, I found myself rereading most of it to really savor it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2013

    Recommend--a worthwhile read

    Not bad for a fantasy thriller more aimed at the young adult to late adolescent crowd. The reminder that popular media is often a route for propaganda and a tool for shifting public opinion could possibly have been stressed a bit more. The best aspect of this book is the way it communicates to a generation that has constant contact with the media that words and phrases alone are not the whole message but often a disguise for manipulating public opinion. I found the idea that a single symbol could subjugate nearly everyone and anyone by opening the mind to sugestion.
    Before literacy was common, there was a kind of awe surrounding the written word, a symbol that could be passed from one person to another to convey and idea without the speaker uttering a sound or even being present. That, for most common people was a truly revolutionary idea.
    I found the idea that certain words --combinations of sounds--could influence another human being beyond conscious control bsased on their personality type a bit difficult to swallow. However, it pays to recognize that each of us by providing personal information to a person, persons, or entity opens the door to certain attempts at manipulation. Whether it be advertizing or something less benign, we must be aware that we are responsible for maintaining our privacy and security of information.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2013

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2013

    Good Read.

    The reference time jumps around a bit which makes it hard to follow at time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2013

    Loved it

    I reviewed this on goodreads and its my first Max Barry but I loved everything about this. Some of its a but predictable but it's utterly enjoyable. Read it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2013

    Are You a Cat Person or a Dog Person?

    Great read - different from anything else I've read recently! Words become weapons and motives are always in question. Very clever concept. Heading to B & N to see what else Max has written.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 11, 2013

    The book is bizarre, it skips around in time periods so I never

    The book is bizarre, it skips around in time periods so I never knew whether it was present or past. Other than that, it was pretty well written.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 7, 2013

    This is a FANTASTIC book! I couldn't put it down. Very brainy

    This is a FANTASTIC book! I couldn't put it down. Very brainy combination puzzle - mystery - sci fi ...so much fun!
    It's based on words, language, psychology ... lots of learn here, as well as very entertaining. I read it in 2 days and am going to re-read it very soon! Best book I've read in a long time!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2013

    Great Book

    Another great book by my favorite author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2014

    Very Good Fantasy

    I'm not a fantasy fan, but this novel was good. I do not recommend it for book clubs, however, because there is not enough to discuss, other than how the main
    character Emily handles each situation. Liked the characters' assigned names--imaginative. Also liked the time jumps as they enhanced the suspense and kept me guessing.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 7, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    This is a "didn't want to put the book down" book. It has suspense and "who done it" thrills with romance as well for the adult reader.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 31, 2014

    Entertaining Read!

    Due to her hard scrabble life on the streets and perhaps a unique talent, the female protagonist of this story learns the key to influencing and controlling the minds of other people. This is a timely story, considering that every Internet search and purchase and political poll are being used at this very moment to categorize people by interests. The premise of the book is that a secret group trains young people that have been tested for the talent for influencing others and placed into segments of control ability. Each trainee is given words for this purpose and there is one series of words that are so powerful that they can destroy the world. The trainees are identified by questions such as "Do you prefer cats or dogs" and "What is your favorite color?" The individuals in the secret group have been assigned the names of various poets such as T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. The protagonist is named Virginia Woolf and after she realizes her extraordinary power and the ultimate words, she wreaks havoc through a remote town in Australia and is pursued by the other poets who try to block her from further destruction. The only thing that can truly stop her is the man who loves her and he has a unique ability of his own, which is the ability to resist being "compromised". There is a lot of action in this novel and the havoc created by Woolf is reminiscent of Stephen King's "Carrie". The characters are wonderfully described, the story is fast paced, and the idea of words having true power, which may have been prevented by the fall of the Tower of Babel, is an excellent theme.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2014

    Chris

    Decent read.., enjoyed most parts, but thought it needed a bit action involving persuasion of others and more poet fights . That said i did read the whole book and i dont usually do so unless the book is entertaining, which it was.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2014

    Too much time jumping around

    Liked the two heros. Never knew if we were in the past or present. Kept reading and hoping to understand,but understanding never came. Its the type of book you really need to read twice to have it make sense, I guess. I won't be doing that.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2014

    What a waste of time

    Read this for a book club. What a disappointment and a waste of valuable time. Too disjointed and to much jumping around. I had to force myself to finish it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 43 Customer Reviews

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