Penguin/Olaru Radian-Alexandru/Shutterstock
Olaru Radian-Alexandru/Shutterstock

Last Wednesday, just hours after I told myself – and you – that I would be using my local library a little bit more, I went out and bought a book at Barnes&Noble. I hadn’t intended on making a personal purchase – I was there to get some Father’s Day presents for my dad – but when I thought of my perhaps-15-minute wait for the Metro, it seemed prudent to grab something for myself too!

As I perused the latest paperback releases, the cover of Mark Barry’s Lexicon caught my eye. And as I read the synopsis on the back, I knew I had found my evening read.

I guess Lexicon could be considered a dystopian thriller, but the world Barry describes is a little subtler than that. Instead of having smoldering ruins everywhere you look, the world seems to be quite similar to how we know it today. But there is a secret society of poets that has created a language that can compel other human beings to do whatever it wishes. There is a lot of social psychology involved – which I personally found fascinating – but essentially, once these poets determine what kind of personality you have, they say a phrase of four seemingly-jibberish words to break through your brain’s defenses against manipulation. At it’s core, Lexicon is a conspiracy novel and an interesting satire of modern advertising.

Barry tells his story through two separate plot lines that eventually come together about midway through the book. The first focuses on Wil Parke, who awakens on the first page in an airport bathroom with a needle in his eye and two strange men threatening him. Circumstances throw him into an uneasy alliance with one of his tormentors – a former poet named Eliot (as in T.S.) – and they eventually head toward an old mining town in Australia called Broken Hill.

The second story centers on Emily Ruff, a homeless girl who makes a quick buck running card games along a pier in San Francisco. She is talent-scouted by the poets for her ability to manipulate people, but is eventually kicked out for being way too good at it. Her story also turns toward Broken Hill, and that’s where we learn that a more sinister manipulation by the leader of the poets – Yeats – is underway.

As Graham Sleight notes in his review for the Washington Post: “The reader has a lot of figuring-out to do, particularly concerning the relationship between Wil’s and Emily’s stories,” but it is so satisfying when that light-bulb goes off and things start to come together. It’s also a fast read and really hard to put down!

An editor and a word nerd, I absolutely loved the premise of Lexicon and it made me want to dust off my college psychology books. It also made me think a little bit more about the ways we are manipulated today. Often it is just to get us to buy something, but Barry presents us with an extreme that makes you pause and wonder, “What if…?”

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