At first so many people were enraptured by the seemingly boundless freedom of the internet and the information age that no one seemed to see the downside. Well, if you look at publishing lately you will see that the people who see the downside have begun to step up. The Circle by Dave Eggers was one such book, and it was quite good. The Word Exchange by Alana Graedon is another, and it’s even better as far as I see it.
In the near future almost all books, newspapers and magazines have been replaced by Memes, devices that keep people constantly in touch, and call us cabs before we leave a building, and order food at the first sign of hunger. The story is about Anana, and her father Doug, whom are both working to produce the last printed edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. Right before the launch Doug goes missing, and leaves Anana a cryptic note that says ALICE. From there, like the eponymous note, Anana begins a trip down the rabbit hole into a world rife with conspiracy as she tries to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance as the outside world slowly begins to come unraveled, struck by a pandemic called
“Word Flu”, which seems to be carried through Memes and the internet itself, and that leaves its victims losing first pieces of their language, and sometimes their lives. Anana’s husband Max, who is quickly on the way to becoming her ex, meanwhile, is a dot.com entrepreneur who is hip deep in the conspiracy, which also touches the lives of her co-worker Bart, who has a crush on her.
That would be enough to make this a good book, but on top of its thriller-like elements Ms. Graedon makes her story a joyous mash-up of several different genres, from romance to comedy to philosophical ruminations on the nature of language. Her own use of language is spot-on, elegant and flexible enough to move confidently from character to character, each of whom comes alive in their own voice. It’s all laid out in alphabetically-ordered chapters, and even that arch touch manages to work. Any work that cares this much about language, the written and even the spoken word, is going to mean a lot to me, so if I climbed atop of my soap-box a bit during this review, I do heartily apologize.
Having said that, this novel is funny, scary, and exceptionally smart; It’s as much a thriller as a meditation on how we speak, listen, and try to make our shared words meaningful to one another, and anyone who cares a fig for the written word and the barriers we face as we try to use language to apprehend the world, should read it.