Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school’s strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Brontë, Eliot, and Lowell—who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. For in the organization, nothing is more dangerous than revealing who you are: Poets must never expose their feelings lest they be manipulated. Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he’s done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated tow nof Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.
As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry’s most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love—whatever the cost.
"He's coming around."
"Their eyes always do that."
The world was blurry. There was a pressure in his right eye. He said, Urk.
"It's too late, forget it. Take it out."
"It's not too late. Hold him." A shape grew in his vision. He smelled alcohol and stale urine. "Wil? Can you hear me?"
He reached for his face, to brush away whatever was pressing there.
Fingers closed around his wrist. "Wil, it's important that you not touch your face."
"Why is he conscious?"
"I don't know."
"You fucked something up."
"I didn't. Give me that."
A rustling. He said, Hnnn. Hnnnn.
"Stop moving." He felt breath in his ear, hot and intimate. "There is a needle in your eyeball. Do not move."
He did not move. Something trilled, something electronic. "Ah,shit, shit."
"Two of them, it says. We have to go."
"I'm already in."
"You can't do it while he's conscious. You'll fry his brain."
"I probably won't."
He said, "Pubbaleeese doo nut kill mee."
An unsnapping of clasps. "I'm doing it."
"You can't do it while he's conscious, and we're out of time, and he probably isn't even the guy."
"If you're not helping, move out of the way."
Wil said, "I . . . need . . . to . . . sneeze."
"Sneezing would be a bad move at this point, Wil." Weight descended on his chest. His vision darkened. His eyeball moved slightly.
"This may hurt."
A snick. A low electronic whine. A rail spike drove into his brain.
"You're toasting him."
"You're okay, Wil. You're okay."
"He's . . . aw, he's bleeding from his eye."
"Wil, I need you to answer a few questions. It's important that you answer truthfully. Do you understand?"
No no no—
"First question. Would you describe yourself as more of a dog person or cat person?"
"Come on, Wil. Dog or cat?"
"I can't read this. This is why we don't do it when they're conscious."
"Answer the question. The pain stops when you answer the questions."
Dog! he screamed. Dog please dog!
"Was that dog?"
"Yeah. He tried to say dog."
"Good. Very good. One down. What's your favorite color?"
Something chimed. "Fuck! Oh, fuck me!"
"That can't be right."
"It says it right fucking here!"
Blue! he screamed into silence.
"He responded. You see?"
"Yes, I saw! Who cares? We have to leave. We have to leave."
"Wil, I want you to think of a number between one and a hundred."
"Any number you like. Go on."
I don't know—
"Wolf is coming and you're dicking around with a live probe on the wrong guy. Think about what you're doing."
Four I choose four—
"I saw it."
"That's good, Wil. Only two questions left. Do you love your family?"
Yes no what kind of a—
"He's all over the place."
I don't have—I guess yes I mean yes everybody loves—
"Wait, wait. Okay. I see it. Christ, that's weird."
"One more question. Why did you do it?"
"Simple question, Wil. Why'd you do it?"
Do what do what what what—
"Borderline. As in, borderline on about eight different segments. I'd be guessing."
I don't know what you mean I didn't do anything I swear I've never done anything to anyone except except I once knew a girl—
"Yeah. Yeah, okay."
A hand closed over his mouth. The pressure in his eyeball intensified, became a sucking. They were pulling out his eyeball. No: It was the needle, withdrawing. He shrieked, possibly. Then the pain was gone. Hands pulled him upward. He couldn't see. He wept for his poor abused eyeball. But it was still there. It was there.
Blurry shapes loomed in fog. "What," Wil said.
"Coarg medicity nighten comense," said the taller shape. "Hop on one foot."
Wil squinted, confused.
"Huh," said the shorter shape. "Maybe it is him."
They filled a sink with water and pushed his face into it. He surfaced, gasping. "Don't soak his clothes," said the tall man.
He was in a restroom. An airport. He had come off the 3:05 p. m. from Chicago, where the aisle seat had been occupied by a large man in a Hawaiian shirt Wil couldn't bear to wake. At first, the restroom had appeared closed for cleaning, but the janitor had removed the sign and Wil had jagged toward it gratefully. He had reached the urinal, unzipped, experienced relief.
The door had opened. A tall man in a beige coat had come in. There were half a dozen free urinals, Wil at one end, but the man chose the one beside him. Moments passed and the tall man did not pee. Wil, emptying at high velocity, felt a twinge of compassion. He had been there. The door had opened again. A second man entered and locked the door.
Wil had put himself back in his pants. He had looked at the man beside him, thinking—this was funny, in retrospect—that whatever was happening here, whatever specific danger was implied by a man entering a public restroom and fucking locking it, at least Wil and the tall man were in it together. At least it was two against one. Then he had realized Shy Bladder Guy's eyes were calm and deep and kind of beautiful, actually, but the key point being calm as in unsurprised, and Shy Bladder Guy had seized his head and propelled him into the wall.
Then the pain, and questions.
"Have to get this blood out of his hair," said the short man. He attacked Wil's face with paper towels. "His eye looks terrible."
"If they get close enough to see his eyes, we have bigger problems."
The tall man was wiping his hands with a small white cloth, giving attention to each finger. He was thin and dark-skinned and Wil was no longer finding his eyes quite so beautiful. He was getting more of a cold, soulless kind of vibe. Like those eyes could watch terrible things and not look away. "So, Wil, you with us? You can walk and talk?"
"Fuck," he said, "orrffff." It didn't come out like he meant. His head felt loose.
"Good," said the tall man. "So here's the deal. We need to get out of this airport in minimum time with minimum fuss. I want your cooperation with that. If I fail to receive it, I'm going to make things bad for you. Not because I have anything against you, particularly, but I need you motivated. Do you understand?"
"I'm not . . ." He searched for the word. Rich? Kidnappable? "Anybody. I'm a carpenter. I make decks. Balconies. Gazebos."
"Yes, that's why we're here, your inimitable work with gazebos. You can forget the act. We know who you are. And they know who you are, and they're here, so let's get the fuck out while we can."
He took a moment to choose his words, because he had the feeling he would get only one more shot at this. "My name is Wil Parke. I'm a carpenter. I have a girlfriend and she's waiting out front to pick me up. I don't know who you think I am, or why you stuck a . . . a thing in my eye, but I'm nobody. I promise you I'm nobody."
The short man had been packing equipment into a brown satchel,and now he slung it around one shoulder and peered into Wil's face. He had thinning hair and anxious brows. Wil might have pegged him for an accountant, ordinarily.
"I tell you what," Wil said. "I'll go into a stall and close the door. Twenty minutes. I'll wait twenty minutes. It'll be like we never met."
The short man glanced at the tall man.
"I'm not the guy," Wil said. "I am not the guy."
"The problem with that little plan, Wil," said the tall man, "is that 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, again, I'm afraid, dead. It may not seem like it, but we are the only people who can save you from that." His eyes searched Wil's. "I can see, though, that you're not finding this very persuasive, so let me switch to a more direct method." He held open his coat. Nestled against his side, nose down in a thigh holster, was a short, wide shotgun. It made no sense, because they were in an airport.
"Come or I will shoot you through the fucking kidneys."
"Yes," Wil said. "Okay, you make a good point. I'll cooperate." The key was to get out of the restroom. The airport was full of security. Once he was out, a push, a yell, some running: This was how he would escape.
"Nope," said the short man.
"No," agreed the tall man. "I see it. Dope him up."
A door opened. On the other side of it was a world of stunted color and muted sound, as if something was stuck in Wil's ears, and eyes, and possibly brain. He shook his head to clear it, but the world grew dark and angry and would not stay upright. The world did not like to be shaken. He understood that now. He wouldn't shake it again. He felt his feet sliding away from him on silent roller skates and reached for a wall for support. The wall cursed and dug its fingers into his arm, and was probably not a wall. It was probably a person.
"You gave him too much," said the person.
"Safe than sorry," said another person. They were bad persons, Wil recalled. They were kidnapping him. He felt angry about this, although in a technical kind of way, like taking a stand on principle. He tried to reel in his roller skate feet.
"Jesus," muttered a person, the tall one with calm eyes. Wil didn't like this person. He'd forgotten why. No. It was the kidnapping. "Walk."
He walked, resentfully. There were important facts in his brain but he couldn't find them. Everything was moving. A stream of airport people broke around him. Everyone going somewhere. Wil had been going somewhere. Meeting someone. To his left, a bird twittered. Or a phone. The short man squinted at a screen. "Rain."
"Domestic Arrivals. Right ahead." Wil found this idea amusing: rain in the terminal. "Do we know a Rain?"
"Yeah. Girl. New."
"Shit," said the short man. "I hate shooting girls."
"You get used to it," said the tall man.
A young couple passed, gripping hands. Lovers. The concept seemed familiar. "This way," said the tall man, steering Wil into a bookstore. He came face-to-face with a shelf that said NEW RELEASES. Wil's feet kept skating and he put out a hand to catch himself and felt a sharp pain.
"Possibly nothing," murmured the tall man, "or possibly Rain, passing behind us now, in a blue summer dress."
In glossy covers, a reflection skipped by. Wil was trying to figure out what had stabbed him. It was a loose wire in the NEW RELEASES sign. The interesting thing was that being stabbed had helped to clear the fog in his head.
"Busiest part of any store, always the new releases," said the tall man. "That's what attracts people. Not the best. The new. Why is that, Wil, do you think?"
Wil pricked himself with the wire. He was too tentative, could hardly feel it, and so tried again, harder. This time a blade of pain swept through his mind. He remembered needles and questions. His girlfriend, Cecilia, was out front in a white SUV. She would be in a two-minute parking bay; they had arranged that carefully. He was late, because of these guys.
"I think we're good," said the short man.
"Make sure." The short man moved away. "All right, Wil," said the tall man. "In a few moments, we're going to cross the hall and walk down some stairs. There will be a little circumnavigating of passenger jets, then we'll board a nice, comfortable twelve-seater. There will be snacks. Drinks, if you're thirsty." The tall man glanced at him. "Still with me?"
Wil grabbed the man's face. He had no plan for what to do next, so wound up just hanging on to the guy's head and staggering backward until he tripped over a cardboard display. The two of them went down in a tangle of beige coat and scattered books. Run, Wil thought, and yes, that was a solid idea. He found his feet and ran for the exit. In the glass he saw a wild-eyed man and realized it was him. He heard yelps and alarmed voices, possibly the tall man getting up, who had a shotgun, Wil recalled now, a shotgun, which was not the kind of thing you would think could slip your memory.
He stumbled out into an ocean of bright frightened faces and open mouths. It was hard to remember what he was doing. His legs threatened treachery but the motion was good, helping to clear his head. He saw escalators and forged toward them. His back sang with potential shotgun impacts, but the airport people were being very good about moving out of his way, practically throwing themselves aside, for which he was grateful. He reached the escalators but his roller skate feet kept going and he fell flat on his back. The ceiling moved slowly by. The tiles up there were filthy. They were seriously disgusting.
He sat up, remembering Cecilia. Also the shotgun. And, now he thought about it, how about some security? Where were they? Because it was an airport. It was an airport. He grabbed the handrail, intending to pull himself up to look for security, but his knees went in opposite directions and he tumbled down the rest of the way. Body parts telegraphed complaints from faraway places. He rose. Sweat ran into his eyes. Because the head fog wasn't confusing enough; he needed blurred vision. But he could see light, which meant exit, which meant Cecilia, so he ran on. Someone shouted. The light grew. Frigid air burst around him as if he'd plunged into a mountain lake and he sucked it into his lungs. Snow, he saw. It was snowing. Flakes like tiny stars.
"Help, guy with gun," he said to a man who looked like a cop but on reflection was probably directing cabs. Orange buses. Parking bays. The two-minute spaces were just a little farther. He almost collided with a trolley-laden family and the man tried to grab his jacket but he kept running and it was starting to make sense, now, running; he was starting to remember how to coordinate the various pieces of his body, and he threw a glance over his shoulder and a pole ran into him.
He tasted blood. Someone asked if he was okay, some kid pulling earbuds out of his hair. Wil stared. He didn't understand the question. He had run into a pole and all his thoughts had fallen out. He groped for them and found Cecilia. He raised his body like a wreck from the deep and shoved aside the kid and rode forward on a crest of the kid's abuse. He finally saw it, Cecilia's car, a white fortress on wheels with VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS on the rear window. Joy drove his steps. He wrenched open the handle and fell inside. He had never been so proud. "Made it," he gasped. He closed his eyes.
He looked at Cecilia. "What?" He began to feel unsure, because her face was strange. And then it came to him, in a fountain of dread that began somewhere unidentifiable and ended in his testicles: He should not be here. He should not have led men with guns to is girlfriend. That was a stupid thing to do. He felt furious with himself, and dismayed, because it had been so hard to get here, and now he had to run again.
"Wil, what's wrong?" Her fingers came at him. "Your nose is bleeding." There was a tiny furrow in her brow, which he knew very well and was sad to leave.
"I ran into a pole." He reached for the latch. The longer he sat here, the closer the fog pressed.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
"Away. Have to—"
"Have to go."
"Then I'll drive you somewhere! Stay in your seat!"
That was an idea. Driving. "Yes."
"You'll stay if I drive?" "Yes."
She reached for the ignition. "Okay. Just . . . stay. I'll take you to a hospital or something. All right?"
"Yes." He felt relief. Weight stole through his body. He wondered if it was okay to slide into unconsciousness. It seemed out of his hands now. Cecilia would drive to safety. This car was a tank; he had mocked it before, because it was so big and she was so tiny but they were equally aggressive, and now it would save them. He might as well close his eyes a moment.
When he opened them, Cecilia was looking at him. He blinked. He had the feeling he'd fallen asleep. "Why . . ." He sat up.
"Are we moving?" They were not moving. "Why aren't we moving?"
"Just stay in your seat, until they get here," Cecilia said. "That's the important thing."
He turned in his seat. The glass was fogged over. He couldn't see what was out there. "Cecilia. Drive. Now."
She tucked a wisp of hair behind one ear. She did that when she was remembering something. He could see her across a room, talking to somebody, and know she was relating a memory. "Remember the day you met my parents? You were freaking out because you thought we were going to be late. But we weren't. We weren't late, Wil."
He rubbed condensation from the window. Through the whiteout, men in brown suits jogged toward him. "Drive! Cil! Drive!"
"This is just like then," she said. "Everything's going to be fine."
He lunged across her, groping for the ignition. "Where are the keys?"
"I don't have them."
"I don't have them anymore." She put a hand on his thigh. "Just sit with me a minute. Isn't the snow beautiful?"
"Cil," he said. "Cil."
There was a flash of dark movement and the door opened. Hands seized him. He fought the hands, but they were irresistible, and pulled him into the cold. He threw fists in all directions until something hard exploded across the back of his head, and then he was being borne on broad shoulders. Some time seemed to have passed in between, because it was darker. Pain rolled through his head in waves. He saw blacktop and a flapping coattail. "Fuck," said someone, with frustration. "Forget the plane. They can't wait for us any longer."
"Forget the plane? Then what?"
"Other side of those buildings, there's a fire path, take us to the freeway."
"We drive? Are you kidding? They'll close the freeway."
"Not if we're fast."
"Not if we're . . . ?" said the shorter man. "This is fucked! It's fucked because you wouldn't leave when I said!"
"Shush," said the tall man. They stopped moving. The wind blew awhile. Then there was some running, and Wil heard an engine, a car stopping. "Out," said the tall man, and Wil was manhandled into a small vehicle. The short man came in behind him. A disco ball dangled from the mirror. A row of stuffed animals with enormous black eyes smiled at him from the dash. A blue rabbit held a flag on a stick, championing some country Wil didn't recognize. He thought he might be able to stab that into somebody's face. He reached for it but the short man got there first. "No," said the short man, confiscating the rabbit.
The engine revved. "How'd it go with the girlfriend, Wil?" the tall man said. He steered the car around a pillar marked D3, which Wil recognized as belonging to the parking garage. "Are you ready to consider that we know what we're doing?"
"This is a mistake," said the short man. "We should stay on foot."
"The car is fine."
"It's not fine. Nothing is fine." He had a short, angry-looking submachine gun in his lap. Wil had somehow not noticed that. "Wolf was on us from the start. They knew."
"Brontë fucked us!" said the short man. "She's fucked us and you won't see it!"
The tall man aimed the car at a collection of low hangars and warehouse-like buildings. As they drew nearer, the wind picked up,spitting ice down the funnels made by their walls. The car shook. Wil, jammed between the two men, leaned on one, then the other.
"This car sucks," said the short man.
A small figure loomed out of the gloom ahead. A girl, wearing a blue dress. Her hair danced in the wind, but she was standing very still.
The short man leaned forward. "Is that Rain?"
"I think so."
"Hit her." The engine whined. The girl grew in the windshield. Flowers on her dress, Wil saw. Yellow flowers.
"Ah, fuck," said the tall man, almost too quietly to hear, and the car began to scream. The world shifted. Weight forced Wil sideways. Things moved beyond the glass. A creature, a behemoth with searing eyes and silver teeth, fell upon them. The car bent and turned. The teeth were a grille, Wil realized, and the eyes headlights, because the creature was an SUV. It chewed the front of the car and bellowed and shook and ran into the brick wall. Wil put his arms around his head, because everything was breaking.
He heard groans. Shuffling. The tick of the engine cooling. He raised his head. The tall man's shoes were disappearing through a jagged hole where the windshield had been. The short man was fumbling with his door latch, but in a way that suggested to Wil that he was having trouble making his hands do what he wanted. The interior of the car was oddly shaped. He tried to push something off his shoulder but it was the roof.
The short man's door squealed and jammed. The tall man appeared on the other side and wrenched it open. The short man crawled out and looked back at Wil. "Come on."
Wil shook his head.
The short man breathed a curse. He went away and the tall man's face dipped into view. "Hey. Wil. Wil. Take a look to your right there. Lean forward a little. That's it. Can you see?"
The side window was a half-peeled spiderweb, but beyond that he could see the vehicle that had attacked them. It was a white SUV. Its front was crumpled against the wall. Steam issued from around its bent front wheels. The sticker on the rear window said: VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS.
"Your girlfriend just tried to kill us, Wil. She drove right at us. And I'm not sure if you can see from there, but she didn't even stop to put on a seat belt. That's how focused she was. Can you see her, Wil?"
"No," he said. But he could.
"Yes, and you need to get out of the car, because there are more where she came from. There are always more."
He got out of the car. He was intending to punch the man in the jaw, knock him down and maybe choke the life out of him, watch those eyes go dim, but something snared his wrists. By the time he realized the short man was handcuffing him in white plastic, it was done. The tall man pushed him forward. "Walk."
"No! No! Cecilia!"
"She's dead," said the tall man. "Faster."
"I'll kill you," Wil said.
The short man jogged ahead of them, cradling his submachine gun. His head moved from side to side. He was probably looking for that girl, the one they'd called Rain. The girl who had stood like she was nailed to the blacktop, like she could stare down a car. "Utility van in the hangar there," said the short man. "May have keys."
Some men in hard hats and overalls approached. The short man screamed at them to lie down and not fucking move. The tall man pulled open the door of a white van and put Wil in it. Wil swung around so that when the tall man followed him in, Wil could kick his teeth down his throat, but a flash of blue in the side mirror caught his eye. He peered at it. There was something blue crouched under a refueling truck. A blue dress.
The van's side door was pulled open and the short man came in. He looked at Wil. "What?"
Wil said nothing. The tall man started the engine. He had slid into the van without Wil noticing.
"Wait up," said the short man. "He's seen something."
The tall man glanced at him. "Did you?"
"No," he said.
"Shit," said the short man, and tumbled out of the van. Wil heard his footsteps. He didn't want to look at the side mirror, because the tall man was watching, but he glanced once and there was nothing there anymore. A few moments passed. There was a noise. The girl in the blue dress burst past Wil's window, startling him, her blond hair streaming. There was a hammer of gunfire. She fell bonelessly to the concrete.
"Don't move," the tall man said to Wil.
The short man came around the van and looked at them. The barrel of his gun was smoking. He looked at the girl and gave a short, barking laugh. "I got her!"
Wil could see the girl's eyes. She was sprawled on her stomach, hair sprayed across her face, but he could still see that her eyes were the same blue as her dress. Dark blood stole across the concrete.
"Fucking got her!" said the short man. "Holy shit! I nailed a poet!"
The tall man revved the engine. "Let's go."
The short man gestured: Wait. He moved closer to the girl, keeping his gun trained on her, as if there was some chance she might get up.
She didn't move. He reached her and proddel her with his shoe.
The girl's eyes shifted. "Contrex helo siq rattrak," she said, or something similar. "Shoot yourself."
The short man brought the tip of his gun to his chin and pulled the trigger. His head snapped back. The tall man kicked open the van door and raised his shotgun to his shoulder. He discharged it at the girl. Her body jerked. The tall man walked forward, ejected the spent cartridge, and fired again. Thunder rolled around the hangar.
By the time the tall man returned to the van, Wil was halfway out the door. "Back," said the tall man. His eyes were full of death and Wil saw clearly that they were now dealing in absolutes. This knowledge passed between them. Wil got back in the van. His bound hands pressed into his back. The tall man put the van into reverse, navigated around the two bodies, and accelerated into the night. He did not speak or look in Wil's direction. Wil watched buildings flit by without hope: He might have had a chance to escape, but that was over now.
"About as close you can get to the perfect cerebral thriller: searingly smart, ridiculously funny, and fast as hell. Lexicon reads like Elmore Leonard high out of his mind on Snow Crash."
—Lev Grossman, New York Times bestselling author of The Magicians and The Magician King
"Lexicon grabbed me with the opening lines, and never let go. An absolutely thrilling story, featuring an array of compelling characters in an eerily credible parallel society, punctuated by bouts of laugh-out-loud humor."
—Chris Pavone, New York Times bestselling author of The Expats
"Dazzling and spectacularly inventive. A novel that jams itself sideways into your brain and stays there."
—Mike Carey, author of The Devil You Know
"I don’t know how you could craft a better weekend read than this novel of international intrigue and weaponized Chomskian linguistics. It’s the perfect mix of philosophical play and shotgun-inflected chase scenes. Like someone let Grant Morrison loose on the Bourne identity franchise."
—Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will be Invincible
“Insanely good. Dark and twisted and sweet and humane all at once.”
—Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City and The Shining Girls
"Best thing I've read in a long, long time."
—Hugh Howey, New York Times bestselling author of Wool
"An absolutely first-rate, suspenseful thriller with convincing characters who invite readers’ empathy and keep them turning pages until the satisfying conclusion."
"A scary and satisfying blend of thriller, dystopia, and horror."
"An up-all-night thriller for freaks and geeks who want to see their wizards all grown up in the real world and armed to the teeth in a bloody story."
"[An] ambitious satirical thriller… amuses as much as it shocks."