‘Lexicon,’ a thriller 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 poetshas 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 is spirited away to the society’s closed school in Virginia.

(Penguin/Penguin) - "Lexicon" by Max Barry

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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.

Barry’s particular addition to the genre is a corrosive wit. The satirical impulse that Barry showed in earlier books like “Jennifer Government” (2003) is also present here. He draws analogies between the control exercised over humans by his fictional poets and the very real ways that advertisers influence us. As one character says: “Persuasion stems from understanding. We compel others by learning who they are and turning it against them. All this, the chasing, the men with guns . . . these are details.”

In a thriller, though, they’re not just details: The chasing and the men with guns take up a lot of pages here. The necessarily slow start of Emily’s story, as she’s inducted into the poets’ world, is contrasted with the violent and initially unexplained events of Wil’s ordeal.

So there are several different genres and tones jostling for prominence within “Lexicon”: a conspiracy thriller, an almost abstract debate about what language can do, and an ironic questioning of some of the things it’s currently used for. The sheer noise of the thriller plot and its inevitable violence end up drowning out some of the other arguments Barry is making.

But at several points, he returns to one central notion: What the poets do is to coerce people against their will. This kind of coercion is an unethical use of power, and power corrupts. Surprisingly, for all its chases and guns, it may be best to think of “Lexicon” as a moral novel.

Sleight is the managing editor of “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.”

Lexicon

By Max Barry

Penguin Press. 390 pp. $26.95

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