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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Max Barry

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To purchase Lexicon

Title: Lexicon
Author: Max Barry
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013
Length: 388 pages
Availability: Lexicon - US
Lexicon - UK
Lexicon - Canada
Lexicon - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : creative thriller premise, fairly well played out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Associated Press A+ 17/6/2013 Jeff Ayers
The Guardian . 19/7/2013 Eric Brown
The Washington Post . 15/7/2013 Graham Sleight

  From the Reviews:
  • "Imagine blending the works of Neal Stephenson with Michael Chabon and the end result would come close to the world envisioned by Barry. The words brilliant and exemplary aren’t adequate enough to convey the amazing craft of Lexicon." - Jeff Ayers, Associated Press

  • "Despite the hoary set-up, what makes the novel such a spellbinding, intelligent read is the combination of excellent characterisation (...) and a freewheeling plot intermeshed with linguistic theory and some genuinely creepy horror set-pieces." - Eric Brown, The Guardian

  • "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. (...) Barry’s particular addition to the genre is a corrosive wit." - Graham Sleight, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lexicon is a two-track thriller, following two different characters. Their lives and fates do intersect, but part of the thrill of the thriller is, of course, in how and why, and Barry (effectively) takes his time in leading readers there.
       First comes Wil Parke, who finds himself ambushed, interrogated (rather forcefully), and kidnapped at the airport. Not that he can fathom why, but some people are very interested in him. As he learns in one encounter:

The man looked at him. "Nothing personal. But we need what's in there more than you do." He tried to rap Wil's head with his knuckles.
       As it turns out, various factions are after him: Eliot, one of his original kidnappers, is soon on the run with Wil, trying to evade those he was originally working with. A group with a whole lot of resources and talents. Hapless, uncomprehending Wil, rather overwhelmed by the turn of events, and Eliot, knowing it's necessary to take extreme action (and frequently resorting to it), make for an unusual but entertaining fugitive pair, and for the rest of the novel the chase is on (even as what and who are being hunted gets considerably more complicated along the way).
       The other main storyline is that of Emily Ruff, first seen as a sixteen-year-old living off of three-card monte cons on the streets of San Francisco. There she encounters a scout of sorts -- someone who is looking for people who are: "persuasive and intransigent" and offers to fly her to Washington D.C. to take a round of tests and, if she passes, a trainee position with a starting salary of sixty thousand dollars. This leads her to an unusual sort of school, where her classes are, at first, fairly normal, but veer off into a rather unusual direction.
       The organization that is training Emily has figured out how everyone can be categorized into "distinct psychographic groups based on how their brain worked" -- which then gave you insight into their vulnerabilities and how you could take advantage of these. Emily has a natural knack for the manipulation part, and so she's a promising candidate for such training. Of course, surrounded by others with similar talents (and often more training) students try not to reveal much (or the truth) about themselves, "to avoid being identified" -- a hard game to keep up.
       Words are key here, as Emily eventually learns that there are words and combinations of them which can be used to compel almost anyone to do anything. Like magic spells, except here it's explained as a neurolinguistic phenomenon. (This part does gets a bit silly, as Barry doesn't try to (over)explain this concept, and so all it amounts to is having descriptions of people saying things like: "Ventrice hasfal collimsin manning", which is supposed to put the person addressed completely under their sway; they might as well wave a wand while they're at it.)
       As befits an organization that's so language-focused, the more important figures in the hierarchy take on the names of famous writers: Yeats -- the top man -- Plath, Brontë, and the like. And, yes, Eliot, as in T.S.Eliot, the man helping Wil.
       Throughout there are also mentions of the Australian town of Broken Hill, where something very, very bad happened, wiping out the entire population. His kidnappers think WIl is from there, though he has no memory of that. And when Emily doesn't quite fit in at her school she is sent into a sort of exile to Broken Hill (pre-disaster -- as it turns out the Wil-storyline takes place considerably after the Emily one starts, and that it takes a long while for the two timelines to converge).
       It's what happened at Broken Hill that is the key to the entire plot, and Barry manages this and its consequences quite cleverly. Eventually we learn why Wil is such a person of interest: "You're the key to an object of biblical power" Eliot tells him -- adding: "And when I say biblical, I mean literally from the Bible". The layers of deception and manipulation, especially of and then by Emily, make for some nice jolts and surprises.
       The power of language here is absolute, which is an entertaining (if not entirely persuasive ...) idea, and Barry plays with that very nicely -- including the attempts to avoid it via the use of secure uniforms, as well as the means by which the object at the center of the novel is shielded and tested. The action keeps moving, and though it feels a bit forced at first, until the pieces start falling into place, Barry manages the pacing and the thrills pretty well. Pulling back the layers in revealing identities and motives, Lexicon comes together very nicely towards the end.
       What's most disappointing in what amounts to all this rush is the central love affair: while in Broken Hill Emily falls in love, and it's this that is her undoing. There are some nice bits to this -- including just why Emily is so drawn to the Harry she shacks up with -- but the relationship (and/or the descriptions of it) never really attains that standout special feel that it should have. Barry presents Emily as continuing to be obsessed with Harry even after leaving Broken Hill, but it doesn't feel like love, at least not in the sappy romantic way that the story really needs.
       Lexicon is an enjoyable thriller, nicely fast-paced and with some clever ideas and twists. Barry is still pretty weak with character but the rest of the novel is solid enough that this frailty isn't too debilitating. Even the use of central plot device that is way over the top (yes, of biblical proportions ...) is surprisingly well-handled -- readily allowing readers to suspend just enough disbelief.
       A fine, fun beach read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 June 2013

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Lexicon: Reviews: Max Barry: Other books by Max/Maxx Barry under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Max Barry was born 18 March 1973. He lives in Australia and used to work in marketing.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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