Wil wakes up in a US airport washroom. Two men have assaulted him and pushed a probe into his eye, trying to find out something about him but he doesn’t know what. He has to go with them, they say, or he’ll be killed:
… if you stay here in twenty minutes you’ll be dead. If you go to your girlfriend, who I’m sorry to say you can no longer trust, you’ll also be dead. If you do anything other than come with us now, quickly and cooperatively, I’m afraid, dead.
And so starts a wild road trip with Wil and Eliot trying to shake off the ‘poets’ who are after them (the other man bizarrely kills himself at the command of one of the poets). It is soon apparent that Eliot is also a poet, but a renegade one, and one of his former comrades called Woolf is out to kill him. The poets have the ability to command obedience in others by using a string of nonsensical words targeted to the personality of the victim (unfortunately for the poets they are not immune from other poets using the words on them).
We are then introduced to Emily Ruff, a young confidence trickster making a precarious living through scamming on card games. One day a stranger notices her ability to ‘read’ people, and gets her to answer a questionnaire. The answers are intended to show what sort of person you are, and once that is known, you can be ‘compromised’. The stranger thinks Emily might have what it takes to become a poet, so he recruits her and she joins their swanky school to be trained in psychology, lexicography etc. But Emily is a bit of a rebel and she rubs up against the straight-laced rules. When she has an affair with a fellow student (a total no-no, intimacy is dangerous as it reveals too much, leaving you open to ‘compromise’) she is out on her ear. She gets a reprieve, however, when she’s told to go to Broken Hill, Australia and blend in until she’s called upon to do her duty as a poet.
It’s what happens in Broken Hill that forms the basis of the events in the book—it’s a disaster that the press says is a catastrophic chemical spill, but is it?
Barry has a lot of fun with the idea of the power of words. The poets are all called after famous writers (Eliot, Woolf, get it?), and the media in all its forms is questioned, as is the profiling of people through what they say and write (Twitter, Facebook, anyone). But first and foremost Lexicon is a rollicking, tense, page-turning read. Barry’s clever structure means you are guessing right up to the end, and maybe if it doesn’t all quite make sense, who cares? I couldn’t put it down.