by Karina Montgomery, contributing writer
Before I get into my thoughts about this book, I must acknowledge the supreme irony of reading this particular work on a Kindle with the aim of publishing my review on the internet. While reading first-time author Alena Graedon’s nerve-jangling love letter to the English language, I was delighted to encounter 26 words that I needed to look up as I was reading. Navigating my maiden voyage with an e-reader, I tapped and discovered yummy and archaic words like jeremiad, dulcarnon, and cimicine. Spoiler alert: the book is a warning against just this kind of instant, disposable knowledge. Result: I’m not a fan of e-readers, but I am of this book.
Graedon’s first novel is set in a recognizably near future. Smart phones have exceeded their already amazing functions and are now full-service devices called Memes; these order your favorite pizza when you’re hungry, or prescribe soporifics when you’re insomniac. They text – or beam – with a thought and tip your cabbie extra when it’s warranted. They have taken over seemingly every human impulse with predictive and analytical interfacing that accesses your needs on a literal cellular level. And that’s where we stand before all the problems start!
Our heroine, Anana Johnson, is the daughter of an eccentric lexicographer who disappears shortly before his magnum opus dictionary also disappears. I don’t mean just a physical book – I mean all the files, all the printed copies, everything, right when the latest edition is about to launch.
Innocuous but everyday events (a slip of the tongue, a break-up, an off-duty security guard) snowball into a true crisis, thanks to the upcoming product merger and launch of the next-generation Meme and The Word Exchange. The Exchange is sort of a pay-per-clue for word definitions. We cynical analogue babies can see where this is going: a monopoly on word meanings! Devaluation of our language! Monetizing of culture! NewSpeak from 1984! Yes – and no. What actually goes down is more insidious and more damaging than if I had had to pay $1.30 to look up those 26 words I didn’t know in this book. If language is transitory and disposable and yet we still need meanings at our fingertips, it still can facilitate basic communication, but we lose meaning, not just the meanings.
Both Ms. Graedon’s spell-check and editor must have melted down processing this fun ride of a novel. We switch narrators on occasion, to an archaically handwritten journal of her coworker and admirer Bart, but the book is all about Ana. The manuscript is peppered with words obscure but real and neologisms dire and ephemeral. Her love (either Anana or Graedon) of language, how it’s more than just a tool to parse data or project needs, is palpable. Graedon turns phrases tightly and concisely and creates her world with skill. Does The Word Exchange get a little preachy? Sure – but in the mouths of the characters doing the prosletyzing, the sentiments are apt. As an avowed loather of the dumbing-down of our language through disuse and misuse, this book hits a lot of my happy places.
Anana is a little passive as a protagonist (ok, she’s not quite a heroine) – myriad things happen to her and around her, and she spends much of her time confused, scared, and in the metaphorical and occasionally literal dark. Her emotions still fuel the story when her actions are stilled by external forces. With a supporting cast of characters, all intimately involved with the linguistic immolation and with Anana herself, it seems odd that she would be so often left behind. The end is a bit of a text dump (like Dumbledore’s patient book’s-end explanations to a bewildered Harry Potter) but then the final chapter closes the ouroboros loop of the novel’s structure just so.
As a first novel, The Word Exchange is engaging and entertaining; as an impassioned polemic against the harmful consequences of an over-reliance on technology that thinks for you, it infects you. The more fatal side effects of the antagonist next-gen tech are a pretty high wire from which we are asked to suspend belief. Even the more benign aphasic symptoms seem accelerated for the narrative’s sake – people can mutter coherently during sleep, will someone really forget the word “very” so quickly? Graedon fully commits to her premise and it makes for a high-stakes ride I think lovers of language will lose themselves in.