The Word Exchange

The Word ExchangeThe Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This turgid thriller is hampered by too much exposition, a bolted-on love story and a rather dim-witted heroine. I think Alena Graedon wanted her readers to remain one step ahead of Anana/Alice, but the unfortunate side-effect is much readerly frustration at the heroine’s wilful ignorance of the glaringly obvious. Not to mention her sheer clumsiness and general abstraction. No wonder the Diachronic Society thinks twice about admitting her into their closeted ranks.

Comparisons with The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus and even Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux are inevitable, but Graedon lags far behind either. A character like Bart, for example, is too obviously a mouthpiece for Graedon’s own thoughts about Hegel and language. Bart also makes a wholly unconvincing suitor for Anana/Alice.

Compared to the dull-as-dishwater Alex though, he is a veritable knight in shining armour. Alas, Bart is by far the most interesting character, whose verbal gymnastics and sophistry shine from the moment he is introduced; more is the pity then that Graedon relegates him to being among the first victims of the ‘word flu’.

The narrative hook for the plot is the discovery by Anana/Alice that her father, the chief lexicographer on the third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), has gone missing.

In searching for her father, she stumbles on a byzantine plot to destroy the NADEL (physically, by incinerating all extant copies; and psychologically, by unleashing a ‘word virus’ to infect all computing devices such as tablets and smartphones to force people to subscribe to the so-called Word Exchange for communication purposes and, ultimately, meaning in all its myriad forms, from quotidian conversation to reading books).

Exactly how this works is complex and unconvincing; Graedon uses an array of info dumps such as letters, journal entries and op-ed pieces to saturate the reader with a surfeit of detail (which is quite ironic in that the book is ostensibly about the ‘dumbing down’ of society through too much info clutter).

In particular, the sections where the characters become aphasic and substitute made-up words for conventional ones are irritating rather than conveying the actual physical breakdown of language. These are too structured and not nearly messy enough; one gets the feeling that Graedon is too much of a grammar Nazi to fully escape the bounds of proper discourse here. (I was reminded of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, but without the anarchic vim and vigour).

Still, Graedon does a great job of making Hegel relevant in the modern world. Her characters have some interesting things to say about language and its changing role in meaning and fulfilment. I think Steve Brock and Synchronic Inc. can be interpreted as a direct critique of Jeff Bezos and Amazon, and the Meme as akin to the ubiquitous tablet. Whether or not a device such as an e-reader ultimately means the end of the book, due to the simple fact that form has ultimately been divorced from content, remains a question we will continue to grapple with for a long time to come.

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