“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

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“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology is becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

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“The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus (2012)

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“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.”

A week is far too long to spend reading a 300-page novel, no matter how small the text. My friends ask me often how I know whether I’ll like all the books I buy and I have no answer – I’m just lucky. Most of the time, that is. Oh yes, it’s one of those rare negative reviews.

Somewhere in New York state, an epidemic has sprung up that has turned children’s speech toxic to adults. All around the neighbourhood, parents fall ill as their children realise the power they have and begin to terrorise the community. Sam and his wife Claire are left with a horrible decision – do they stay with their teenage daughter, or abandon her to get to the quarantine where they can start to recover?

Sam soon finds himself lumbered with the unwanted company of Murphy, a large man who seems to know too much about what’s going on, though is almost certainly not to be trusted. He knows things that only Sam, Claire and the other Jewish members of the neighbourhood know, thanks to their secret forest synagogues. As the plague worsens, soon it isn’t just children that can cause damage. Before long, all communication becomes nigh-on impossible, and there’s a race on to find a cure, or at least a method of communication that won’t kill everyone.

On the Venn diagram of literature, this book sits somewhere between Nod, Lexicon and Lord of the Flies, all of which are better written and more engaging – and I say that having really disliked Lord of the Flies, too. The premise, that of a toxic language, is really great and I was hoping for a novel that would run with the idea, and while this one does, it feels like it’s going the wrong way. The language is dense and quite pretentious. There seems to be a big issue made of the main characters being Jewish, with an early theory being that it was only Jewish children who were causing the sickness, but there’s never a definite answer as to whether this is how it started or not. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people, especially Sam and Claire’s teenage daughter Esther, who is presumably painted in a negative light so that we don’t feel bad when they plot to leave her behind.

The reviews on the cover suggest that the book is funny, too, but that’s passed me by. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes, it’s just that I couldn’t find any to get. There’s nothing remotely funny here, and if anything I would describe the book with a single altogether different word: harrowing. Ben Marcus has painted a rather shocking world, and the images are very visceral, made more so by the fact there isn’t, by the nature of the plot, much dialogue.

Are there redeeming features? Sure. The scenes where Sam is part of the team of scientists trying to invent a new alphabet or method of communication are quite fascinating, with a lot of imagination used to come up with any number of alternate patterns of speech, such as staining wood with water or constructing letters out of yarn that only form words when the right breeze is applied to them to give them shape. The rest of the time though, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by what’s happening. I felt uncomfortable, and the endless references to the Jewishness of the main characters contrasted with images of emaciated victims is a horrifically stark reminder of the Holocaust. This seems too much, especially for a book billed as “funny”, and which seems, at it’s heart, to be a huge metaphor for the fact that parents don’t understand their children.

I found several mentions online emphasising that Marcus is experimenting with the art of novel-writing here. If that’s the case, then I conclude his experiment has failed. Time to go back to the lab.

“Lexicon” by Max Barry (2013)

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Sticks and stones may break bones, but words kill.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words kill.

“He’s coming around.”

I’ve always considered myself rather persuasive, which is lucky because in my jobs both as a salesman and a writer, that’s a pretty essential quality to have. I’m not saying I could make someone rob a bank, but I can make them buy something they didn’t know they needed. However, when it comes to persuasion, the characters in Lexicon are something else.

The story opens with Wil Parke being kidnapped from an airport in Portland, and the first chapter explodes by with murder, destruction, escape, capture and persuasion in good measure. The men who have taken him want him for something, but Wil has absolutely no idea what it is, but it soon becomes clear that without Wil in tow, the men are failing their job and there is a danger on the way.

The story then changes and focuses on Emily Ruff, a down-and-out homeless teenager who has nothing but the bag on her back and a knack for tricking tourists into playing cards with her and taking all their money. She finds herself approached by a man in a cheap suit who claims that he can offer her an outstanding future of great promise. There exists a school, known just as the Academy, that will train her to better use her powers of persuasion. It turns out, you see, that there are a finite number of personalities available to people and when you can work out someone’s segment, you can speak a few select words and gain complete control over them.

Wil’s story continues as he is held captive by his kidnapper, Eliot, and Wil tries to make sense of the situation around him. Meanwhile Emily begins studying at the Academy and honing her skills. But there is more to it than this. Somewhere in Australia there is a town called Broken Hill, and there is a word there that should never have got out. It kills anyone who sees it, and someone needs to go and get it out of there and take it somewhere safe before it can do any further damage.

In this excellent and very fast-paced thriller, linguistics and psychology tie themselves together to show that anyone is capable of being controlled if you just know what you’re doing. It expounds many ideas about how this is going on in our world as it is, most obvious with things such as the Internet, which tailors its adverts, links and stories to show you what you want to see and buries the rest. You may think you have free will, but how many of your decisions are entirely your own?

The novel is telling one story, but jumps around at different points along the way. It quickly becomes apparent that the two main stories, those of Wil and Emily, are not happening at the same time, but it takes a while to work out which one comes first and what the consequences of that are. One of the twists I got a long time before it was revealed, but one remained hidden from me until I slapped my forehead and realised I’d been an absolute dunce.

I like a book that sets the world up as the one we know and then just tweaks a single detail, such as this ability to fully control people simply because of the right words. It’s long been accepted that words have power, any reader and writer worth their salt knows that, but this turns it up to eleven and shows what we might just be capable of. There are a lot of references to the Tower of Babel and general discussions on evolution of language and why exactly it’s so powerful. My favourite touch is that all the characters with these persuasive abilities are known as “poets” and each one adopts the name of a famous writer, meaning we get characters called Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Bronte and Margaret Atwood, among others.

Alright, so the ending didn’t quite stack up the way I’d hoped and a couple of things remain unexplained, but a lot of thought has gone into this world and, frankly, I can’t think how I would have ended it, or how indeed I expected it to end. It’s a terrifying book in some ways because we’re all so convinced that we’re acting out our own desires, and we think we project a certain version of ourselves to the world, but there’s no way we can really know if any of it is our own decision.

Were I a poet, I would be able to persuade you to read this book with just a few words, but I’m not, so hopefully this review will have done enough.

“The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall (2007)

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the raw shark texts

Just when you thought it was safe to go back…

“I was unconcious. I’d stopped breathing.”

Every so often, and with increasing frequency, I stumble across a book with an idea so great that I become consumed with jealousy that I didn’t get there first. It’s already happened this year with The Magicians and The Dinner, and now here again with Hall’s so-far-only novel, The Raw Shark Texts.

Recommended by a friend, I found my copy in a second hand store and thought I’d give it a go. Despite said friend not steering me wrong in literary choices before (he’s the reason for my small but solid fondness for Paul Auster), I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book. Basically, I didn’t think I was going to be keen. The blurb was vague, flicking through revealed cheap but attractive tricks and and I wondered what sort of thing I was getting myself in for.

I needn’t have worried.

Eric Sanderson wakes up without his memories, with no idea of where he is, how he got there, or who he is. He finds a note from himself telling him to go to Dr Randle and she will explain things to him. She explains that this is the eleventh time he’s done this, and each time he sees her, he has fewer and fewer of his memories. She also tells him not to read any letters or messages from his past selves as they may be dangerous. She also gently lets him know that his mental issues began after his girlfriend, Clio Aames, died while they were on holiday in Greece.

Eric returns to as normal a life as he can manage, just him and his fat ginger tom Ian, and a year later, he’s feeling pretty stable, busily ignoring the almost constant stream of letters and packages from his past self, putting them in the kitchen cupboard and not reading them. However, when his television tries to attack him and it becomes clear that something very strange is happening, he begins to read.

Thus begins his journey of discovery. He is being hunted by a conceptual shark, a Ludovician, a creature that exists in his mind and feeds on his memories. Life will find a way, as Darwin said, and now life has formed inside language and thought, and some of it is very dangerous. He discovers someone else who can help him, Dr Trey Fidorus, the world’s only cryptoconceptual oceanologist, and sets off to find him, taking Ian with him. From then on, things only get more and more complicated…

The idea of a conceptual shark is absolutely breathtaking and beautiful in equal measure. There is in fact and entire ecosystem of conceptual creatures, some of which we meet over the course of the novel, others that are merely discussed or hinted at. The novel uses innovative forms to really add impact to the writing, such as including diagrams, codes, letters spaced out across the page in unusual patterns and, most fascinatingly of all, a shark made of words and letters, stalking Eric and the reader through several otherwise blank pages.

The ending, annoyingly, feels a little bit flat to me, leaving a few questions still outstanding, but I can live with it. It ends on a note of hope, and the preceding events more than make up for an excellent story which involves a man determined to live forever, a cavern system made of paper and the most enchanting cat in recent fiction.

Neil Gaiman fans will get a lot out of this, but then again I think anyone can. Anyone who believes in the power of words and books the way I do will also find great comfort here.

An outstanding, beautiful, excellently-crafted read.