I was actually giddy with excitement as I approached the one-quarter mark in this book. Never, I felt, had I been so excited about something so original. A concept that was brilliant and unique. And the fact that it was all about language made it even more appealing to me.
By the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book, I couldn’t wait for it to be done.
The brilliant concept: In our near future, a smart-phone-like device called a Meme not only keeps people in constant contact with one another through calls, texts, and a wide variety of social media, but has taken ‘smart’ to the next level and anticipates and even informs the users of his or her own needs (such as hailing a cab when it’s time to leave the office or ordering take-out food when the stomach starts to rumble). So far, this doesn’t seem like fiction at all, does it?
As in any society with technological changes, there is a group opposed to this technology advancement and here it is Doug Johnson, an editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), which is about to have a new printing. When Doug disappears, his daughter Anana has only the written word “ALICE” as a clue to lead her toward her father.
Due to the need for money to help finance new editions of the dictionaries, NADEL sold the rights to its property and now, with the help of the Memes, users must pay a per-word fee (or buy a pack of words) to look up a word. But something even more nefarious is happening. Called a “word flu,” people are losing the grasp of language. Memes are supplying completely new words for existing ones, replacing the English language with something that can now actually be owned. As part of the flu, people begin to speak with the new words, appearing unintelligible to those who haven’t contracted the flu.
I truly think this is a brilliant (though not entirely original) concept (there’s clearly a strong 1984 sensibility here). As someone fascinated by language and words and decrying the loss of language, I was completely behind this concept and, as I wrote earlier, actually giddy at the idea. I even appreciated all the nods to various literary allusions.
Where the book does not succeed: The book tries to do too much, not fully realizing any of it. I’ve heard it referred to as a literary mash-up, but it might better be referred to as literary mush.
Alana, our protagonist, is not particularly likeable. Whiny, lost, immature. I never cared about her relationships (nor did she) and never ever bought in to her tireless search for her father. And yet that’s what 80% of this book is about. Half way through the book I realized the direction the book was taking and it became tedious with each alphabetical chapter repeating her search and the growth of the word flu.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is coming to the realization of how powerful the human brain can be. Even with the word flu in effect and new words being substituted, I was amazed at how much I could still comprehend in those sections where the reader is shown the language of the affected.
An impressive debut novel, but like another much-touted debut novel, Swamplandia!, this fails to fully realize its potential.
Looking for a good book? The Word Exchange is daring and bold but doesn’t hold a strong story all the way to the end.
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The Word Exchange
author: Alena Graedon
hardcover, 384 pages