“Lexicon” by Max Barry

LexiconAs some of you may know, I’m a fan of the author Max Barry. The first book I read of his was “Company” (it’s his third book, so I was a bit out of sequence); then I read Syrup and Jennifer Government. More recently he wrote Machine Man – all are excellent books and I can recommend them (and I’ve written about them elsewhere on this blog). Recently his latest novel “Lexicon” was released, and I bought a copy and finished reading it a couple of days ago.

At this point, for the impatient among you, I will give you the short version of the review: it’s utterly compelling, and you will be thinking about it for days afterwards… go and buy it now.

The book itself has a fascinating premise: I don’t want to give too much away, but the book focuses on words used almost as weapons. What if, using the right words, someone could be persuaded to do … anything? The astute among you will notice that this is actually not far from the truth. In the world as it stands, people are persuaded with arguments constructed with words. Using words is a legal way of bringing someone round to your way of thinking (well, unless something like blackmail or some other form of coercion is involved, but let’s leave that aside for now). What Lexicon does is explore the possibility of a world where words can be taken a step further: words don’t have the power to just persuade someone of the truth of an argument; they actually can compel a person to do a particular thing – overriding the will of that person.

What Max Barry does in the book is take that premise and weave it into an action-packed story involving helicopters and guns …  death, you know, that kind of stuff. I was absolutely gripped after the first couple of chapters. One small piece of advice though: this isn’t a book you want to read when you’re feeling tired or distracted. There were points in the book where I felt a tad lost, just because things were moving so fast and occasionally bits of action are left to the reader’s imagination (as well as the book switching between the ‘present’ and the past storylines). Let me be clear – this was completely my fault for not paying enough attention!

What I’d really like to do with the rest of this is actually pick up on a few points about the book which have caused me to think since I read it. I think a good book should not just be entertainment but actually make you stop and think about the world, which is what I think Max Barry is good at. I should point out that this section might contain a few minor spoilers – I won’t reveal any major plot points but if you’re picky about spoilers you might want to avoid this bit (that said, if you want to avoid any spoilers at all you should probably be avoiding reviews).

Firstly, then, what I found fascinating about the concept of using words to influence people was knowing what their desires were. As I understand it, the way that the influence words in the world of Lexicon is by first knowing what kind of person someone is (what type they fall into); after that you can know exactly what it is they want – what their desires are. Then, when you know what their desires are, you’re able to use your words to speak into that – to bring them round to your point of view by giving them, in a sense, what they want – something like that. (Actually, that reminds me a bit of the Irene Adler episode of BBC Sherlock – but we’ll let that slide for now).

What I find interesting about this is that it is in many ways true: our desires do define us at quite a deep level. What I was actually reminded of is C.S. Lewis’ essay The Weight of GloryWhat Lewis argues is that, as created creatures, our innate desires are for heaven – for the things of God, things which our experience here on earth is but a poor shadow: “Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. And this, I think, is just what we find.” In other words, the desires we experience on this earth are simply pointers towards our ultimate desire. The problem is when we as humans consider the shadow to be the real thing.

So to my mind it’s interesting that Lexicon seems to pick up on this language of desire – how the root of a person, at their core, is what they desire.

Another thing I also found interesting was that, at one point, one character says to another “We’re all broken” (can’t remember the quote verbatim, but words to that effect). The characters didn’t really seem to offer any solutions to that little conundrum, although I think it’s a true saying!

I think this has probably digressed enough from the main point of the book, but I would just like to finally pick up on the understanding of the Tower of Babel. This is a well-known story in the Bible from Genesis 11:1-9. The book seems to major on the fact that Babel is about language. I’d just like to make the point that it’s not about language… if you read back to Genesis 10, you’ll see that the table of nations is described (each with its own language). This is not indicated as being a negative thing. The key verse in the Babel narrative seems to be 11:4 “Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”. Two things here: (1) “Making a name” for humanity – sounds like pride to me; (2) refusing to scatter over the whole earth – this is a rejection of God’s creation mandate to “go forth and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”. In other words, the people were building a name for themselves and rejecting God.

In contrast to this, God’s promise to Abraham in 12:2 says “I will make your name great” – in other words, in contrast to the sinfulness of humanity making a name for themselves, God would make Abraham’s name great. All this is a roundabout way of saying, Babel was not about language – it was about a rejection of God and God’s enforcement of the creation mandate!

Right, I think that’s enough from me. Those are my thoughts, I’d be interested to hear yours.


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