Review: 'Lexicon' by Max Barry

Years ago, there was a "Monty Python" sketch about the world's funniest joke devised by the British in World War II.

The joke was so hilarious that it caused everyone who heard it to die laughing; when translated into German and read to opposing troops, it proved a devastating weapon.

In a sense, "Lexicon" is a book-length version of that sketch, done in earnest as a thriller.

The premise of Max Barry's novel is that a secret society of poets has refined a language system that can compel another human being to do whatever the society wishes. One of the book's two plot threads follows a young woman named Emily who makes a living by running games of three-card monte on the street in San Francisco. She has been talent-spotted by the poets for her nascent ability to influence others, and so she is spirited away to the society's closed school in Virginia.

In the course of her education there, she learns that humans fall into several personality "segments" and that the language used on them must depend on this. She also discovers that full-fledged society members adopt the names of real poets, such as Plath and Yeats. Barry has some sarcastic fun with this: Eliot, in particular, is about as unlike the real T.S. Eliot as it's possible to imagine.

The novel's other thread follows a young man named Wil, who awakes on the first page with a needle in his eyeball and two men threatening him.

It's clear that he has some connection to the poets and their work, but only slowly does he surface from amnesia and figures out what it is.

These two threads converge on a devastating environmental disaster in the Australian mining town of Broken Hill. Behind that calamity lurks a larger issue — a schism in the poets' ranks. The reader has a lot of figuring-out to do, particularly concerning the relationship between Wil's and Emily's stories.

Once you accept the premise of "Lexicon" — that prefacing an order with words like "Vartix velkor mannik wissick" makes it impossible to resist — this is an extremely slick and readable thriller. The early sections of the book about the poets' school are strongly reminiscent of any number of similar enclaves, from the Xavier Institute to Hogwarts to Brakebills in Lev Grossman's "The Magicians." But once Emily leaves school, she's thrown into the knots of Barry's conspiracy plotting.

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. At their best, authors like Tim Powers and Umberto Eco construct astonishingly elaborate alternate histories in which fantastical events nestle between the known and documented ones.

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