The Word Exchangeby Alena Graedon
A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word.
In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries,/b>/b>/i>
A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word.
In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.
Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .
Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.
Graedon's spectacular, ambitious debut explores a near-future America that's shifted almost exclusively to smart technologies, where print is only a nostalgia, and nostalgia is only an archaism. But while everyone carries "Memes," devices with enough data to negate the need for memory—let alone vocabulary—and can even anticipate wants and needs, Anana Johnson works closely with her anti-Meme father Doug, a famous lexicographer, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language. But when Doug goes missing, what once seemed like a luddite's quaint conspiracy theory takes on new plausibility, and with it, new threat, as the city quickly falls victim to a fast-spreading "word flu" virus. Chapters alternate between Ana's narration and the journal entries of her friend and colleague Bart, shedding light and inserting lacunae by turns. With secret societies, conspiracies, and mega-corp Synchronic's menacing technologies, Graedon deploys all the hallmarks of a futuristic thriller, but avoids derivative doomsday sci-fi shtick. Instead, her novel is rife with literary allusions and philosophical wormholes that aren't only decorative but integral to characters' abilities and limitations in communicating, and it succeeds precisely because it's as full of humanity as it is of mystery and intellectual prowess. Agent: Susan Golomb, Susan Golomb Agency. (Apr.)
“[A] nervy, nerdy dystopic thriller.... Clever, breathless and sportively Hegelian in theme ... The Word Exchange combines the jaunty energy of youngish adult fiction (boyfriend trouble, parent conflicts, peer pressure and post-collegiate jitters) with the spine-tingling chill of the science-fiction conspiracy genre.... Graedon makes you wring your hands for her heroine—and tremble for the future of the English language throughout her 26 chapters, achieving the singular feat of turning the alphabet into a cliffhanger. As much fun as Graedon has with her Borgesian doomsday scenario, her novel folds serious meditations on language and society into its manhunt.”
—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
“The relationship between language, its vessels, and the woes of the status quo has been a longtime favorite theme of dystopian fiction, and it is front and center in The Word Exchange, the fast-paced, thrill-a-minute début novel of Alena Graedon.... [S]he creates a powerful sense of mystery about what, exactly, is causing ‘the word flu,’ how it is spreading, and why it is affecting different people in different ways.... [I] raced greedily to the last page, enjoying Graedon’s plot-weaving every step of the way.”
—Peter C. Barker, The New Yorker.com
“Great.... Set in the near future, the novel is a sobering look at how dependent we are on technology and how susceptible we are to the distortions of language.”
—The Washington Post
“A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning ... Language becomes a virus in this terrifying vision of ... print-empty, Web-reliant culture. Students of linguistics may run screaming from this dystopian nightmare by Brooklyn-based debut novelist Graedon, but diligent fans of Neal Stephenson or Max Barry will be richly rewarded by a complex thriller. In fact, the novel is as much about lexicography, communication and philosophy as it is about secret societies, conspiracies and dangerous technologies.”
—Kirkus, starred review
“Graedon's spectacular, ambitious debut explores a near-future America that's shifted almost exclusively to smart technologies, where print is only a nostalgia, and nostalgia is only an archaism ... With secret societies, conspiracies, and mega-corp Synchronic's menacing technologies, Graedon deploys all the hallmarks of a futuristic thriller, but avoids derivative doomsday sci-fi shtick. Instead, her novel is rife with literary allusions and philosophical wormholes that aren't only decorative but integral to characters' abilities and limitations in communicating, and it succeeds precisely because it’s as full of humanity as it is of mystery and intellectual prowess.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[The Word Exchange is] a bibliothriller of epidemic proportions ... [A] remarkable first novel, combining a vividly imagined future with the fondly remembered past to offer a chilling prediction of where our unthinking reliance on technology is leading us. And, as you’d expect, Graedon’s word choice is exquisite.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Alena Graedon’s dystopic thriller The Word Exchange... conjures a not-too-distant-future society rendered aphasic by digital technology.”
—Megan O’Grady, Vogue.com
“[A] propulsive, twisty future-noir ... [Graedon’s] vision of the future is less alarmist than alarmingly within reach. Her attention to language—and the breakdown of language—invites comparisons to writers like Anthony Burgess and Lewis Carroll. Anana is an Alice figure, and the New York City she lives in a grim, Web 4.0 wonderland.”
—The Daily Beast
“Alena Graedon makes what sounds like a preposterous premise believable in this clever first novel, a mystery set in a dystopian near future and built around the disappearance of Douglas Samuel Johnson, the editor of the North American Dictionary of English Language.”
—The Chicago Tribune
“Sharp ... [D]azzling ... [The Word Exchange] offers a snappy, noir-inflected vision of a future New York suffering from an epidemic of aphasia brought on by super-smartphones ... Graedon’s language is sparklingly inventive...[and] so enjoyable...Graedon is too good a writer, it seems, to let an opportunity for linguistic play slip ... Despite all of its considerable linguistic sophistication, the novel offers a blunt message: Words are good. Reading is good. Books are good.”
“[A] literary thriller . . . . An ambitious debut, The Word Exchange is a cautionary tale with sophistication. . . . Unsurprisingly, Graedon’s own language is essential to the success of The Word Exchange—it’s erudite, ruminative, and complex.” —Meredith Turits, Bustle.com, April Editor’s Pick, April 21, 2014
“[I]f you’re like me and the notion of dictionary lovers as heroes and smarmy new-media guys as villains sounds great to you, then this is our book of the year.... This is the mainstream lit novel that truly is speculative fiction, science fiction, and just plain awesome fiction all at once.”
“Graedon’s novel is a delightful mash-up of noir, cyberpunk and novels about post-collegiate angst. Its treatment of language as a virus will remind science-fiction aficionados of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, while its exploration of the relationship between memory and identity recalls such films as Blade Runner, Memento and Inception. And its inventive use of language, as both its narrators begin to succumb to word flu, evokes the playful linguistic experimentation of Anthony Burgess.... It’s a brainy sort of book about what happens when we stop using our brains.”
—Cyrus Patell, The National
“[Graedon] knows how to ratchet up mystery. In [her] dystopian future, face-to-face interfacing is finished and even email is a fading memory; when the man working on the last-ever dictionary goes missing, his daughter sets out to find him and discovers murky anti-literate corporate forces and outposts of word-loving outlaws.”
“Can you imagine a future without books, newspapers or magazines? Alena Graedon has done just that—her debut novel conjures up a scarily plausible dystopian future, where print is dead and intuitive handheld devices are the only form of communication.”
—The Lady Magazine (UK)
“[A] crackling good thriller and a rumination on language. . . . Philosophically complex, The Word Exchange is a compelling and thought-provoking read. After reading this ambitiously inventive story about the intersection of language and technology, you’ll never look at your smartphone the same way.”
—Chatelaine Magazine (Canada)
“The Word Exchange . . . addresses a concern shared by many over the impact of the digital revolution. As the question is popularly expressed: Is the Internet making us stupid? . . . . The Diachronic Society have pills for the word flu, but the best antidote may be a return to old-fashioned, slow reading.”
—The Toronto Star
“The Word Exchange is hard to put down and harder not to think about.”
—The Ottawa Record
"Alena Graedon's spectacular debut is a story for our age of 'accelerated obsolescence.' A genuinely scary and funny mystery about linguistic slippage and disturbance, it's also a moving meditation on our sometimes comic, sometimes desperate struggles to speak, and to listen, and to mean something to one another. To borrow Graedon's own invention, The Word Exchange is 'Synchronic' a gorgeous genre mashup that offers readers the pleasures of noir, science fiction, romance and philosophy. It's an unforgettable joyride across the thin ice of language."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove
“Imaginative, layered, and highly original, The Word Exchange is an engagingly creepy story of technology gone wrong and a clever meditation on the enduring mysteries of language and love.”
—Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles
"Wow! This highly addictive future noir is also terrifyingly prescient. Set in a parallel New York filled with language viruses, pneumatic tubes, and heartbreak, Alena Graedon's book is luminous and haunting at every turn. I will never look at words in quite the same way—and neither will you."
—Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
Language becomes a virus in this terrifying vision of the print-empty, Web-reliant culture of the 22nd century. Students of linguistics may run screaming from this dystopian nightmare by Brooklyn-based debut novelist Graedon, but diligent fans of Neal Stephenson or Max Barry will be richly rewarded by a complex thriller. In fact, the novel is as much about lexicography, communication and philosophy as it is about secret societies, conspiracies and dangerous technologies. Our heroine is Anana Johnson, who works closely with her father, Doug, at the antiquated North American Dictionary of the English Language. The dictionary is an artifact in a near future where most of the populace uses "Memes"—implantable devices that feed massive amounts of data to users in real time but also monitor their environments to suggest behaviors, purchases and ideas. The devices, marketed by technology behemoth Synchronic, have become so pervasive that the company has enough clout to create and sell language itself to linguistically bereft users in their online Word Exchange. If that sounds creepy, it is, and it gets worse. One evening, Doug gives Ana two bottles of pills and a code word, "Alice," to use if danger should enter their loquacious lives. When Doug disappears, Ana and her comrade Bart must navigate the increasingly treacherous world behind the clean lines of Synchronic's marketing schemes, complete with chases through underground mazes and encounters with the subversive "Diachronic Society," which leads the resistance against the Meme vogue. The danger explodes when the world is engulfed by "word flu," causing widespread, virulent aphasia. "As more and more of our interactions are mediated by machines—as all consciousness and communications are streamed through Crowns, Ear Beads, screens and whatever Synchronic has planned next, for its newest Meme—there's no telling what will happen, not only to language but in some sense to civilization," warns the resistance. "The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future." A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning.
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Read an Excerpt
Al•ice \ˈa-lǝs\ n : a girl transformed by reflection
On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary. And not only from the big glass building on Broadway where its offices were housed. On that night my father, Douglas Samuel Johnson, Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, slipped from the actual artifact he’d helped compose.
That was before the Dictionary died, letters expiring on the page. Before the virus. Before our language dissolved like so much melting snow. It was before I nearly lost everything I love.
Words, I’ve come to learn, are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds. Without words, what remains? Indecipherable customs. Strange rites. Blighted hearts. Without words, we’re history’s orphans. Our lives and thoughts erased.
Before my father vanished, before the first signs of S0111 arrived, I’d reflected very little on our way of life. The changing world I’d come of age in—slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries—was a world I’d come to accept. If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss. How could we miss words? We were drowning in a sea of text. A new one arrived, chiming, every minute.
All my life my father mourned the death of thank-you notes and penmanship. The newspaper. Libraries. Archives. Stamps. He even came to miss the mobile phones he’d been so slow to accept. And of course he also grieved the loss of dictionaries as they went out of print. I could understand his nostalgia for these things. The aesthetics of an old Olivetti. A letter opener. A quill pen. But I’d dismissed him when he’d spoken darkly of vague “consequences” and the dangers of the Meme. When he’d lectured on “accelerated obsolescence” and “ouroboros” and foretold the end of civilization. For years, as he predicted so much of what eventually came to happen—the attenuation of memory; the ascendance of the Word Exchange; later, the language virus—no one listened. Not the government, or the media, or the publishing industry. Not my mother, who grew very tired of these plaints. Not me, even after I went to work for him when I was twenty-three. No one worried about the bends we might get from progress; we just let ourselves fly higher up.
Well—not quite no one. I later learned that my father had conspirators. Those who shared his rare beliefs. But I didn’t find them until after the night he departed. Or, in fact, they sort of found me.
My father and I were supposed to meet for dinner at the Fancy Diner on Fifty-second Street, a childhood ritual revived only a month before—the night my boyfriend, Max, had moved out. Our four years together, turned to dust. Maybe the breakup shouldn’t have come as a shock; we’d both tried ending things in the past. But I’d thought we’d finally bound ourselves to something solid and strong, and then—Max was gone.
When I’d stumbled into my father’s office, reeling with the news, he’d proposed that we knock off early. I was my dad’s assistant—what he called his “amanuensis”—a job I’d thought would be temporary when I’d taken it more than four years earlier, soon after college: just until I could finish my painting portfolio and apply to grad school, I’d assumed. But I’d come to really like my life. I’d relaxed into it, like a bath. I liked having time to watch movies: long, plotless, and Italian; short, violent, and French; action ones, especially with steely heroines; and my favorite, thanks to Dad, anything starring sweet Buster Keaton. I liked stalking the Thirty-ninth Street flea market for vintage jumpers, leather bombers, shirts for Max. Liked inviting friends and family over for lasagnas and soufflés. I liked walking the High Line and the Battery Wetlands with my mom and volunteering with her sometimes in the parks.
And the truth was, I also really liked the job. It wasn’t that hard, maybe, but it was fun: combing through contributors’ notes and importing edits to the corpus; filing quotation paragraphs; drafting memos. Even taking editorial meeting minutes wasn’t so bad. On days when I felt a little torpid or bored, I still liked the routine, having somewhere to be, with combed hair, not spattered in paint or clay (or uncertainty). I liked my colleagues, some of them as strange as me. And maybe most of all, I liked the time with my dad—who I got in the habit of calling Doug along with the rest of the staff—even when he made me crazy, which was often. He’d spent a lot of time at work when I was growing up, and I’d sometimes felt as if he were off on an extended trip even when he was sleeping each night at home. I’d missed him, without always realizing it. Getting to spend so much time with him as an adult—coming to know him in all his generous, larking, exacting glory—felt very lucky.
I still spent most weekends in the studio, painting, sculpting, making what Max called my “installations”: tiny dioramas, clothes of Kevlar or tinfoil or leaves, animated glyphs of Max and me doing odd routines. “Living in the now,” in Max’s words. My portfolio never felt quite done, which Doug often gently chided me for. “Are you sure you’re not just being hard on yourself? You’re capable of far more than you seem to think you are,” was a recurring refrain. But it always seemed that I had a little more to do and that finishing could wait.
Max’s plans—the MBA, the internships, Hermes Corp.—seemed more pressing, especially to him. “Once I start raking it in,” Max would say, “you can be whatever you want.” He’d say it to get at me. All my life I’d vexedly accepted other people’s money. My grandparents’, mostly. (They had a lot, and I had none, and I’m their only grandchild; I still tried to find polite ways to turn it down most of the time.) But there was more truth in what Max said than I’d liked to admit. And I did take it for granted, that we’d get married and start having kids. That was among the things I had to face when he left: myself.
But on the afternoon it happened—My stuff will b out 2nite, the text read—I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, which Doug sensed. (The tears rilling down my face as I braced against his desk may have been a hint.) That’s when he suggested the Fancy. “Let’s just see if I’m available,” he joked, browsing through his blank calendar. Doug was also single. He was almost always available.
In the month since then—as the Fancy’s specials cycled from pot roast to meatloaf to filet of sole to turkey, in anticipation of Thanksgiving—Doug and I had spent every Friday night in the diner’s front-corner booth. We liked it there because it still had a waitress, Marla. She was orange-haired and surly. Brought our food as if she were doing a favor. But even she was mostly for show; we’d order with my Meme, like anywhere. Still, it felt comforting. Mild abuse while we chewed.
We’d meet at seven-thirty, me coming from home, Doug straight from the Dictionary. He’d never been even a few minutes late. He’d usually be the one waiting. Hunched over a sheaf of pages, oblivious to the stares of small children unused to seeing such sustained, public use of pens and paper, he’d edit until I swept in, breathless from cold and the sad, lingering agitation of missing Max. “Give me a full report,” Doug would say as I slid in beside him on the tacky vinyl.
But on the night in question, I arrived to find our booth empty.
At first I was unfazed. Vaguely remembered Doug saying he had a late meeting. I tried to order tea, but my Meme changed the order to a hot toddy. When Marla sloshed the foggy glass down in front of me, I relaxed and sipped it gratefully. After twenty minutes, though, my pulse started racing. I thought I’d mixed up the dates—that this was the night of Doug’s big party and I should be home getting changed. My father had recently overseen a twenty-six-year revision of the Dictionary—by far the largest project of his career—and the forty-volume third edition was scheduled for release in just over a week. But before my fear of being late could fully bloom in my brain, my Meme trilled with a reminder that the party was the next Friday. Relieved, I turned back to the toddy as the words faded from the screen.
In the end I stayed half an hour, mobbed by sadness, Marla’s artless curiosity—“He ain’t coming?” were, I think, her exact words; words that inexplicably cut me to the quick—and a growing sense of irritation. I placed half a dozen calls to Doug’s office. Then, feeling slightly tipsy, I beamed Marla the check. I thought of heading home, but instead I trudged the few blocks east and north toward the Dictionary, buffeted by gritty winds.
As I turned the corner onto Broadway, hair lashing my face, I could swear I saw Max retreating off the avenue in a black cloud of suits. My heart beat faster. I thought of hiding, or turning back, but he was going the other direction and didn’t seem to notice me.
I’d seen a lot of Max lately. Ordering coffee. Waiting for the train. Resting his arm on someone stunning. Only it was never him. Just a phantom, made from the smoke of old memories. Real Max had moved to Red Hook, deep in the leafy reaches of Brooklyn, to that stretch known as the Technocracy Sector. When I saw that night’s version of him in profile, I decided I was wrong. Then I hurried on to the Dictionary.
The glass door to the lobby pushed back bodily when I lurched to open it, and let in one low, ghostly scream of wind as I made my way to security. Rodney was alone behind the desk. “Evening, Miss J,” he said. Dipped his grizzled head politely.
“Is he still up there?” I asked, dabbing my nose with my mitten.
“Haven’t seen him come down,” said Rodney. Looked at me quizzically.
The twentieth floor was dark and desolate. It was after eight p.m. on a Friday and everyone, even the lowliest, loneliest etymology assistant, had left hours earlier. Everyone, it seemed, but Doug. I shuffled down the dim corridor toward his office. Past my cubicle. Past the conference room, which was a disaster. Chairs everywhere. Table littered with cold coffees.
Light spilled from under Doug’s door, and I opened it without knocking. Started to ask, “Where were you?” as I stepped in. But then I stopped talking. Because he wasn’t there.
I can’t say what atavistic anxiety shivered through me, but I suddenly didn’t want to leave the bright oasis of my father’s office. I also didn’t want to stay. But mostly I didn’t want to go. I locked the door and dialed the lobby.
“Hmm,” said Rodney. “You want someone to come get you? I can’t leave the desk, but I could call Darryl down from twenty-two.”
I almost agreed, but I felt crazy. And Rodney sounded strange—angry, maybe. Then I spied a familiar item on Doug’s armchair: his brown leather satchel. “Forget it,” I told Rodney. Wherever Doug had disappeared to, I thought, mollified, he’d be back soon. And in the meantime I had a rare opportunity.
To be in Doug’s office without Doug was extremely unusual. And unlike his apartment, which was still unnervingly spare more than a year after his separation from my mother, this room was filled with my favorite father detritus. The jackalope hunting license that Aunt Jean had sent from their hometown—and my father’s namesake—of Douglas, Wyoming. The glass canister by the phone stocked with both sweet and salted licorice. And next to the desk lamp, the small, stoppered bottle of well-aged sherry vinegar that Doug said was for salad but from which I’d many times seen him take a straight swig.
Near the door were his pneumatic tubes, which emptied into a bin marked “In.” This label always struck me as gratuitous. But the same could maybe be said of the whole system. One of the first things Doug had done when he’d started at the Dictionary in 1974, at just twenty-seven (my age), was campaign to have pneumatic tubes installed, for fast, secure transport of “sensitive data” (e.g., neologisms, disputed antedatings, particularly thorny etymologies, etc.). Also the occasional fortune-cookie fortune. Comic book. Chocolate egg. The Dictionary had occupied two floors then, and Doug had argued that the tubes would increase efficiency. He decried the idea that they might be anachronistic, costly, and inconvenient. Dismissed the “rumor” that computers would soon allow the electronic shuffling of information. And against all odds, both his board and the building executives had okayed it. Doug could be extraordinarily persuasive. (Though my mother might disagree.)
It hadn’t been easy; the Dictionary shared the building with different entities—in those days, mostly publishers. As a nonprofit run on government and other grants, the NADEL was fairly separate. (It also got a bit of a break on rent; executives liked having its prestigious name on the directory.) But after the tubes’ success at the Dictionary, they were soon put in throughout the building. And initially nearly everyone used them; stations on each floor, as well as a few offices, like Doug’s, were set up for direct delivery. An operator in the subbasement routing terminal directed documents back and forth, and it was a boon to get contracts, memos, notes moved so quickly and easily. Later, when computers had indeed become prevalent; the Dictionary “streamlined” to one floor; and the operator started splitting his day between the terminal and the (also obsolescing) mailroom; tube use, already dwindling by then, stopped almost completely.
All of this was familiar to me. What I didn’t yet know that night in my father’s office was that ours wasn’t the only building in the city with tubes; at least a couple of other places had them as well—and had installed them far more recently.
Wending past Doug’s in-tray, I surveyed his books, too. He was one of few people I knew who still read that way, from a book, instead of streaming limns from a Meme or some other smart screen. Even Dictionary staffers didn’t do much analog reading. Except Bart, I should say. Bart was my father’s protégé. (I’d always envied that slightly.) He was head of Etymologies—what Doug called the Department of Dead Letters—and the Dictionary’s Deputy Editor. Bart also had lots of books. He and Doug weren’t alone, completely. There were other holdouts. And collectors, of course, who hoarded all kinds of antiquarian objets.
On one of Doug’s shelves, in front of a Samuel Johnson biography, was a half-empty bottle of Bay Rum aftershave, Doug’s preference for which, he claimed, required a visit every few years to Dominica, the West Indian island where it’s made. Seeing it that night, I felt a deep pang. It reminded me of a trip Max and I had taken there once, right after we’d fallen in love. That bottle, in fact, was probably an artifact: we’d shipped Doug back a case. “An offering for my future father-in-law,” Max had said then.
While we were there, we’d also stocked Doug up on pineapples. He had a special affection for them. There were a few pineapple etchings in his office—I could see two from where I stood—and a big bronze pineapple bookend. He also had a small stash of pineapple-print ties, some pineapple-patterned shirts and socks. A small bowl of stale oblong chocolates done up in yellow and green foils. He kept eight potted pineapple crowns under special lamps. That night they were a little dry. I’d tell Doug, I thought. If he ever showed.
I was getting antsy. I checked my Meme. Sneaked a licorice pip from Doug’s jar. Followed it with a pineapple-wrapped chocolate and squirreled a few in my coat pocket for later, along with a pen of Doug’s I’d been coveting. And I tried, for about two minutes, to read a book, until my mind collapsed in boredom.
I also started to feel a tiny twinge of unease, like an invisible hair tickling my cheek. To brush away the feeling, I fetched water for my father’s pet bromeliads and soothed myself with the rich, nutty scent of damp earth. Then I felt the delicious frisson of transgression creep over me.
For as long as I could remember, I’d been curious about what Doug kept in his desk. Siphoning off some of my attention to listen for the sound of his tread, I sat and tried all the drawers. Most were filled with work chaff: loose papers, crumpled notes, broken pencil leads. But then I tried the top drawer on the left. Tugged it. And tugged. Shimmied, a little crazily. Finally it came loose with a crack—a pen wedged at the back, I soon learned, had snapped in half—and the drawer released with a rattle.
To say I was surprised by what Doug had hidden there wouldn’t be quite true. But it did disappoint me. It was a cluttered (and newly ink-smattered) cache—probably the largest private collection in the world—of photographs of Vera Doran. My mother. Douglas Johnson’s soon-to-be ex-wife. And I felt very bad for splashing them with ink. But I also felt a tiny, unfair burst of reprisal. As Max would have said, there are no accidents. She was my mother, and I loved her, but sometimes I wished Doug didn’t anymore. Watching him suffer had been agony.
Looking back on our whole family life through a new dark lens also hadn’t been easy for me. Had my mother really been so unhappy? It hadn’t seemed that way. My parents had never been one of those gloomy couples like some of my friends’. They’d hugged and touched and said “I love you,” to each other and to me, and it had seemed so obviously true that the words were almost a superfluity. Doug would belt Don Giovanni to Vera in the kitchen as she laughingly roasted a chicken, trying not to spill her wine. He’d write love notes and scrawl funny drawings on grocery lists and receipts. Vera would mambo through the living room for Doug and me, or pretend the hallway was a catwalk. It’s true that when they’d fought, it had been fulminous—things sometimes went flying—but I’d always taken that as a good sign. And maybe it was, in a way. Over the past few years those fights had slowly come to an end.
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Great Potential, Mediocre Execution I would like to thank NetGalley and Doubleday for the opportunity to read this e-ARC. Although I received the ebook for free, that in no way impacts my review. Given the challenge of this undertaking I am giving this book 3 stars. <blockquote>A dystopian novel for the digital age, <em>The Word Exchange</em> offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word. In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange. Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the <em>North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL)</em>, where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the <em>NADEL</em> offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . . Joined by Bart, her bookish <em>NADEL</em> colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, <em>The Word Exchange</em> becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.</blockquote> I was very excited by the book blurb, thinking I'd finally found a book that combined lexicography, possibly some etymology, and a modern novel rife with action, suspense, and romance. Sadly the book did not fulfill my admittedly high expectations. Had it been shorter, and not as rife with examples of aphasia it might have come closer to my expectations. But alas it did not, or at least not until the final quarter or less. While the premise of the story is very promising, the delivery quickly became far too bogged down with demonstrations of the aphasia that characters were suffering from, and then made things substantially worse with further examples of the "word flu." Aphasia is essentially a disruption in a person's ability to understand and formulate words/language, and in this case it was demonstrated by people making up nonsensical 'word salad' that was then interspersed with real words, leaving the reader to try to figure out the speaker's intended meaning. Though I understand this was done to demonstrate how difficult it was for the uninfected, or in the early stages of the illness, I still felt that it was relied upon far too heavily. Had much of it been cut out I feel the book would have had more impact, maintained the pacing, demonstrated the risks inherent with becoming dependent upon digital technology, all while sustaining a level of suspense. On it's own the "word flu" wouldn't be so challenging to read about, but as the level of aphasia increases concomitantly with the severity of the "word flu," it become, for me at least, a tremendously frustrating read. To the point where I found myself struggling to make it through the book - because the aphasia impacted my ability to understand the characters, or even care about what were purportedly the major relationships. Anana, Ana for short, goes looking for her beloved father, and boss, Doug. What she finds confuses her to no end, not to mention scaring her silly. She makes rather witless choices for someone who is supposed to be smart, and while that's to be understood given her fear for her father, it doesn't justify her continually poor choices. Before he went 'missing' her father told her to avoid using her Meme (think of a Siri that is both psychic and on steroids), that they are dangerous to everyone. She hears this from a few other trusted folks, but learns the hard way when to listen to those she respects for their wisdom and intelligence. He also told her to stay away from her ex-boyfriend Max, and even to avoid his own protégé, and Ana's friend, Bart. Hearing all this what does she do - she pines over Max and enlists Bart's help in trying to locate her father. She even drags Bart along to Thanksgiving dinner to act as a shield in an attempt to avoid telling her mother & grandparents about Max breaking up with her. It is almost astounding that Ana survives the story at all, given her flailing about. She seems to be more of a danger to her father and others than not, even though she's just trying to locate her father to ensure his safety. In reality she would have been better off trusting others and looking to her own safety. There was no one thing in particular about Ana that left me feeling cold, yet that was just what happened. I only barely felt connected with her near the very final pages of the book, and that still may have had more to do with characters around her than with anything she herself did. Of all the characters I found Bart to be the most likable. He was down to earth and came across as being real. He'd been carrying a torch for Ana for ages, certainly during the three years she'd been dating Max. Yet he never said anything, only supported her to the detriment of his own heart. Doug was also a cool character, and I mean that both ways. There's a lot more to him than meets the eye, and he is a loving father. His passion for language is clear, and certainly spoke to my own love of language. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I think that the premise of this story has great potential, and real merit. Unfortunately I felt that this particular execution fell short of the mark. It almost felt as if there were two separate story lines competing throughout the book. And they both could have stayed, but they needed to be merged more cleanly for me to really enjoy them as a single story. To do that would have required some heavy editing, losing some extraneous side stories and shortening the book at the same time. All the same, this may just end up being be a very fascinating read, for the right people.
the word exchange by alena graedon this is an odd book, looking at the use of language, and what would happen if language was taken from us, in the last days of publishers, the last day of dictionaries, and the story of personal struggle to find meaning in life.
Too many distracting elements to make this book work. I received a copy of The Word Exchange, the debut novel from author Alena Graedon, from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my review. This book has been called "the dystopian novel for the digital age" and "inventive" and on some levels I agree with those descriptions. I loved the idea of The Word Exchange, which is set in the near future and deals with the constantly forewarned death of print media. Anana Johnson and her father Doug are working on the multi-volume third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language when Doug goes missing one night. As Anana searches for her father, entries in the dictionary start disappearing, and people begin to succumb to a disease that is dubbed "the word flu" and makes them talk in gibberish. Where is Doug Johnson? Who is behind "the word flu"? There were so many things that I enjoyed about The Word Exchange. As I mentioned above, I loved the idea of the book. More than just a book about the death of print as a medium, this book actually goes farther to imagine the death of the English language as it is today. The allure of that premise drew me in immediately, and I felt that the basic story line held up to my expectations. All of the elements of a good dystopian story were there. Megacorporation Synchronic was plausible as the Big Brother figure, as was The Diachronic Society as the rebels fighting to preserve the current way of life, Anana as the plucky heroine, and Bart as her sidekick. Even the smallest of characters, like Vera and Victoria Marks were given interesting backgrounds that drew me to them. I think my favorites, though, were Phineas with all of his quirks and idiosyncrasies, and Max. My only detraction here was that I felt that the story went on a little bit too long. On story alone, though, I would give this book a 4 out of 5 stars. Where I felt the book lost it was in the execution. The author uses a number of devices to illustrate the underlying philosophy of the story; that society is becoming immune to the finer points of the English language, but I felt that she tried to be too clever and that, on a whole, these devices ended up detracting from the story rather than enhancing it. The one that I felt worked the best was the way the chapters were organized by the letters of the alphabet. The inclusion of a word and definition at the beginning of each which gave an overview of the main points of that chapter was really good. In fact, that is the only device that I felt really worked. On the other hand, the author's use of obscure words unfamiliar to the average reader, while clever, was a huge detraction from the flow of the story. I consider myself to have a good vocabulary and I ended up having to look up upwards of 50 words, so many that I actually lost count. Eventually I began to think how lucky I was to be reading this on an e-Reader, with a dictionary definition just a touch away. While this may have been the author's attempt to point out how easily technology can suck you in, to me it just seemed like the author was actually touting that which she was supposed to be warning against. Another device that totally did not work for me was the actual printing the gibberish that people began to speak as "the word flu" spread. In the beginning it was interesting, illustrating how intrusive electronic devices have become in our society. As long as these gibberish words were kept to a minimum and it was easy to still figure out what the character actually meant to say, it was okay. After a while, though, it got old, and was so pervasive I ended up skipping whole pages, and toward the end, one whole chapter. While I understood that these devices were part of the plot of the book, I felt that the average reader would find them cumbersome and could find them enough of a distraction to actually give up on the book altogether. Taking everything into consideration, I did enjoy this story on many levels. I can see a certain market for this book with just the right readers. I can't see a mass appeal for it, though, and for that reason I don't feel that I can recommend it to everyone. I will, however, recommend the book to certain of my reading friends, but that pool is unfortunately pretty small. I would like to see what this author could do with something a bit more mainstream.
* I received a copy from the publisher via netgalley. This is a book that has a very interesting premise but it focuses too much on the back story and not enough on the what's happening in the present. It's written by different characters in journal form. I usually enjoy that kind of plot point; however, the characters tended to ramble and they weren't very likable. It's a shame because I looked forward to reading this book.
4.5 stars When I was in college, I was part of a group presentation in a communications class. We acted out a skit in which we had replaced some nouns in the script with other random nouns. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that, in order to be understandable, i.e., communicate effectively, words must have meanings which are shared by the speaker and the listener. This truth is what makes "Mad Libs," and TV shows where an actor (usually American) butchers a foreign language, so funny. But what if the absence of shared meaning happened in ordinary life to a large number of people? This premise propels the plot of Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange, and it quickly becomes terrifying. In The Word Exchange, those who use a sophisticated smartphone/tablet device called a Meme contract "word flu," in which, like my communications class project, gibberish gradually replaces English words. Simultaneously, someone is destroying or corrupting all of the English dictionaries, and since Meme users have stopped remembering things themselves (after all, the Meme can remember for them), they must look up words on their Meme using the Word Exchange, which charges a fee for every definition. The Word Exchange is owned and operated by Synchronic, the corporation which just happens to manufacture the Meme. As people find it more and more difficult to understand each other in even the simplest of conversations, Anana Johnson, a lexicographer's daughter, and an eccentric collection of readers (gasp!) search for a way to save the English language. Fans of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth who remember the Everpresent Wordsnatcher will enjoy the adventure, although I pity the poor copy-editor who had to figure out which "errors" were deliberate. I found The Word Exchange timely and thought-provoking (with links to such diverse topics as the renewed interest in memorizing poetry and the research revealing that the prevalent use of digital media may actually be modifying the neural connections in our brains), and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves reading and language. I received a free copy of The Word Exchange through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Set in the near future, The Word Exchange takes place in a world where print is almost extinct and people can biologically interface with smartphone-like devices called Memes. Anana is searching for her missing father, following a single clue he left behind. She follows a trail which uncovers a secret society and the true intentions of the corporation behind the Meme, all while the English language begins to decay thanks to a "word flu" pandemic. The way the technology worked and how the word flu spread make me skeptical. I'm not sure if I felt like details were too scarce, if the details weren't consistent enough, or if I wanted things to be more grounded in reality. Also, the characters seemed flat and one-dimensional. During what should have been signification moments of interaction between characters, I didn't feel anything for them at all; it felt like filler. Some more background would probably have helped me connect with them. I did enjoy the way Graedon uses (and tinkers with) language throughout the novel. I wondered if the story would eventually dissolve into gibberish at some point. The premise behind this dystopian world is what kept me turning the pages, and that is what kept me wanting to read more. When it was all over, though, that wasn't enough to make me feel like I loved this book. Even though this one fell flat for me...Whatever the future brings when it comes to technology, The Word Exchange will certainly come to mind! I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
What if your iPhones and iPads were more than what they are? What if they could sense what you needed before you even asked? What if they could answer your questions, not by you asking them to Siri, but before you even realize you were doing to think them? The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon describes a similar type of world. In the not so distant future, the Meme, which is kind of like the most ridiculously amazing iPhone/iPad ever, has taken over. People love their Memes and rely on them a lot. Gone are books, paper, letters, dictionaries. . . But what comes with this convenience? A virus. A word flu that is taking over, destroying coherent speech and causing individuals to become deathly ill. Anana (like “banana” without the “A”) works at the Dictionary, where her father is in charge of one of the largest Dictionary rewrites in history. When he goes missing, and the word flu begins to rear its ugly head, Anana knows there is more to the story, including her ex-boyfriend potentially having caused this virus and disorder. The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon was an outstanding book, written in 26 chapters each named for a letter of the alphabet. Told from both Anana’s and Bart’s (her father’s close co-worker) perspectives, The Word Exchange leaves you thinking. Are we really that far away from a society where everyone relies too much on electronic devices? The Word Exchange is gripping, captivating, yet realistic as well. It’s the kind of book that might encourage you to put down your iPhone and check out some books, letters, or even a physical dictionary. What word would you miss if it disappeared from the English language? Thanks for reading, Rebecca @ Love at First Book
Did I enjoy this book: Not really. I should probably preface my comments by admitting I’m not a huge fan of dystopian novels. Had I known this book was . . . oh gosh, not sure how to describe it . . . out there? I probably would’ve turned down the request to review. So you won’t be surprised to learn I don’t like the story at all. Let me start with memes. They are like smartphones that do everything automatically making everyday thoughts and plans unnecessary. At least, that’s what I think they are. I’m very pro-technology. My kindle is sitting next to me; my ear buds are plugged into my iphone while I type on my laptop. Yet I consider myself to be pretty extroverted. If you’re letting technology take over your life, stop it. It’s that simple. That’s why I couldn’t buy into the basic premise of this novel. I’m not sure how to ease into this next paragraph so I’ll just come out and say, footnotes have no place in fiction. That’s a sentence I never imagined I’d have to write. But here it is. If I have to stop reading to look something up it kills the flow of the story; which BTW was painfully slow. In the About the Author section it says, “ . . . her first novel, was completed with the help of fellowships at several artist colonies.” Despite my best efforts, I can’t figure out what that means. But if you’re considering writing a novel and a fellowship of artist colonies offers to help: run. Would I recommend it: If you live in an artist colony, maybe. Everyone else, no. As reviewed by Belinda at Every Free Chance Book Reviews. (I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)