Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Lexicon by Max Barry
by Max Barry
Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 1, 2014)
Source: personal copy
Amazon says this "At an exclusive training school at an undisclosed location outside Washington, D.C., students are taught to control minds, to wield words as weapons. The very best graduate as “poets” and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose. Recruited off the street, whip-smart Emily Ruff quickly learns the one key rule: never allow another person to truly know you. Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy, until she makes the catastrophic mistake of falling in love."
Which is a terrible description - Emily is not their most talented prodigy by a long shot - she was a street hustler playing three card Monte and only gets in on sufferance. The book actually starts with the other main character, Wil, who is being kidnapped from an airport by two men who think that there is something special about him.
The book starts with ...
"He's coming around."
"Their eyes always do that."
The world was blurry. There was a pressure in his right eye. He said, Urk.
Well, if there is anyone reading my ramblings this is probably not going to go down well but I don't have any idea why this book was so popular. There is effusive buzz about this book all over the place and it sounded like it should be right up my alley. After reading the first few chapters, my reaction to the plot was sociopathic bloodbath, and - well, it didn't really change except to add the word boring because everything was telegraphed from miles away.
This might get a bit spoilery - the plot is so linear, despite the time splice, it is hard to say anything without potentially giving something away. I know that several people have complained it was difficult to follow the time jumps - and the author does cheat, jumping time frames within chapters, but I had no problem. Everything was linear - you were just waiting for them to connect at points to make the whole. I don't say anything explicit but fair warning, if you want to read the book with a pure mind skip this ...
The whole plot is completely predictable, since the dramatis personæ is so small you already know exactly who is who and you can tell what is going to happen. I kept hoping that something unexpected or interesting would happen but no dice. At best you had this verses that bipolar choices, so reading along was like flipping switches - this - this - that ... which means the books pretty much fails as a thriller for me.
The world-building was nonsensical too. Shallow post-modernist 'information is power' but 'truth is subjective' that doesn't go anywhere or have any deeper meaning. There doesn't seem to be a point to the names given to the poets (the magic word gobbledegook speakers) other than that they are names most people would recognize. If there really was a shadowy organization that acted like this bunch of twits they would have long since imploded. There was no internal logic to their behavior nor any sort of overarching purpose - it never made any sense - we have awesome power and do research on phonemes and mass sociology - so we use it to lamely manipulate politics and make consumers buy more shit (oh, and get sex). Really ?? That is the best you can do?
We are also supposed to totally buy into protagonist centered morality, which means that the vast majority of the characters are two-dimensional red shirts, and we are supposed to root for the 'heroes' but I really have no idea why. Self-preservation isn't much of a heroic arc.
In addition the book seems to have some serious issues with sexuality - and appears to think that love = sex for some reason. Just yuck!
The ending was the soppiest bit of nonsense I have seen in a while. And to cap it all off - it seem nothing that happens in the story actually matters in the long run. If you think about it, the 'agency' is so seriously dysfunctional that it make have taken them a while to sort out that one of their own went nuts, but given a few months it would not have mattered anymore if they did or didn't, so it is seriously unclear that anything we read about mattered.
If this is seriously what passes for a 'fast-moving, intelligent thriller' I despair of finding anything to read in this sub-genre that I will enjoy. Two claws.
The more I think about this, the more irritated I get, so...
Seriously - STOP NOW - unless you have already read the book or don't plan to
The beginning of the book sets up this idea that Emily is unusual because she uses her words to kill someone - so that makes her susceptible and sets her up to be used. However, it turns out that the poets, and the agency as a whole, regularly kill off people all the time, in gruesome ways. For the most part it appears that the only reason members of the agency are upset about Broken Hills is that it was sloppy and too obvious, not that three thousand people died. Regular humans are treated like lab animals at best - actually no - there are rules about how lab animals are treated so that isn't it - regular humans are treated as disposable conveniences. I have seen this book described as fun and uplifting which makes me side-eye those reviewers and want to back away from them slowly. Mass murder is fun?
We find out that there are several 'branches' internationally with other leaders - so why doesn't Australia have their own head of agency ? What's up with that ? The agency was already not making much sense, this made it even weirder.
A pattern on a block of wood? My suspension of disbelief was already pretty tenuous, but some block of wood that they dug up?
And - Elliot knew - he had worked out more or less what had happened so that at the beginning of book, the timeline that starts the book with Wil's kidnapping, he knew what went down at Broken Hills, he knew who was really responsible and his behavior after getting Wil doesn't make sense. Instead he experiences several course corrections as the reader learns more from the previous timelines. The connection from the last bit of the earlier timelines and the first bit of the later timeline that starts the book isn't made so there is a significant bit of logistics left out. This makes it seem like the author wasn't sure how he was going to end the book when he started, and didn't go back and fix it once he had the end so there are mismatches. And those connections - how you got from the bit near the end to the bit at the beginning would be the most interesting part of the story and would have the most active characters running around! Instead the reader starts out knowing that all of those people are dead (or at least will be soon) so they lose all their potential for interest and just become more red shirts. ARGH!
END SPOILER ALERT