Audiobook Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

12 09 2013

Lexicon by Max Barry

Read by Heather Corrigan and Zach Appelman

Penguin Audio

Length: 12 Hrs 36 Min

Genre: Thriller

Quick Thoughts: Max Barry takes us on a master class in plotting, developing one of the most intricate storylines where nothing is as it seems, and no character is truly who you think they are. Barry uses non-linear storytelling and big game changing twists to constantly change the entire world of his creation. Each surprise fundamentally alters every perception you had about the book. It’s brilliantly done, utterly fascinating, yet fundamentally flawed.

Grade: B-

There is an old nursery rhyme that goes “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This, of course, is the anthem of the bullied, the song that embraces those who must deal with school yard taunts, knowing that these words won’t do any lasting harm. It is also utter and complete bullshit. As someone who was made fun of as a kid, I have heard this plenty of times. The people who use it do not use it as an anthem for the oppressed. In fact, this statement is often a weapon itself. Adults will use this statement to devalue a child’s complaints. “Heck, it’s just teasing, words can’t actually hurt you so buck up and deal with it mister.” Or even worse, it’s the anthem of the Bully, a justification for those who use words as weapons. “I mean, it’s not like I hit him with sticks and stones, I just used words.” The truth is, anyone who says this to a bullied child, even if the bullying is “just” verbal is a jackass. Words are weapons. Maybe, those who lean towards the physical side of the equation, where words can’t do as much harm as a kick or a punch, don’t realize this. As a kid, I was a relatively strong, big guy. I wrestled in high school and was quick to rough house. I dealt with plenty of punches, kicks and other physical harms, and I healed, and rarely remember them today. Yet, I can remember words. Things that were said to me that altered the very way I viewed myself and the world. The lingering affects of a poorly spoken work by an adult I respected affected me more than any stick or stone ever could. Words have power to build up or destroy. There is a certain magic in words, whether they are written or spoken., Certain works will demand attention, and  no matter what some idiotic adult may believe, can absolutely hurt you.

In Lexicon, words have power. Actual power. Lexicon tells the secret history of those who understand and use these worlds for manipulation and control of the world. Emily Ruff is a homeless con artist, whose incredible powers of persuasion are discovered on the streets of San Francisco by a secret organization. She is sent to a school to study and learn the power of words to compel and control those around her. Yet when a world altering word, called a bear word, falls into her hands Emily finds herself with an incredible power, and the ire of the organization that trained her. Honestly, this synapses really isn’t correct. Don’t believe a word or what I just wrote, even though it’s all true on the surface level. This is the problem with Lexicon. Max Barry takes us on a master class in plotting, developing one of the most intricate storylines where nothing is as it seems, and no character is truly who you think they are. Barry uses non-linear storytelling, and big game changing twists to constantly change the entire world of his creation. Each surprise fundamentally alters every perception you had about the book. It’s brilliantly done, utterly fascinating, yet fundamentally flawed. The problem is, the story is told in a way that never lets you connect with it at all. No character is developed in any realistic way, because all the characters are malleable instruments of the plot, and being manipulated by both the author and other characters in ways ranging from subtle to smack you in the face and kick you in your sensitive parts. The only character that I even remotely bonded with was Emily, yet I found her to be frustrating and I never felt we got to know her true essence. You really never get a good grasp on her character, because truly knowing her would make certain twists too obvious. Barry introduces the main antagonist into the story far too late to allow us to hate him, but makes him too unreasonable and cold to let us sympathize with him. We are left only with the knowledge that Emily hates him, so we must end up hating him too. Now, Lexicon isn’t a bad book on any level. There were moments I truly loved, and while I was immersed in the world, I really enjoyed it. It’s truly a wonderfully plotted novel that caused my jaw to hit the floor so many times, my dentist should pay Barry residuals. I especially liked how Barry incorporated history and mythology to back up his tales about the almost mystical powers of words.  Yet, looking back on the novel, I simply feel cold. I would love to see more stories told in this world, just with more of a focus on making the characters ones I could at least give a small portion of a flying crap about.

For a novel full of unpronounceable words, crazy gibberish talk and other such weirdness, narrators Heather Corrigan and Zach Appelman made it seem effortless. This was my first time listening to either of these narrators, and while neither truly blew me away, the both gave solid performances of what seems to be a very tough novel to vocalize. They both bring a fresh, hip vibe to the reading, creating likeable character voices even if these characters weren’t necessarily likeable themselves. I though the two narrators had a flow and sense of pacing the jived well with the other, making the transitions between the two seamless. I especially liked Appelman’s command of the various accents he had to perform, as well as both narrators ability to drive the plot forward, adding tension to the elaborate chase scenes. Personally, I think with these performances, audio is the way to go, since I believe they give the weird words more power hearing them commandingly spoken than reading them in print, where they simply look like gibberish.

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