Literary novels can get away with lacking an exciting plot when they are filled with profound insights or inspiring artistic language that like poetry conveys complex emotions and relationships. Genre novels can get away with the opposite, being completely plot-driven, large-scale, ‘simple’ entertainment, even if formulaic. I become most impressed by the authors, or specific works, that are able to pull off the best of both worlds. That kind of mashup is a risky endeavor though, for sometimes it can come out where neither side really comes out well in the product, and that unfortunately is the case overall with “The Word Exchange”.
The premise of the novel is wonderful, and lovers of books, languages, and the power of words will appreciate at the very least the foundations of the novel. The early chapters are dominated more by the literary side of the equation. While the writing is good throughout the novel, it is probably best here Although it verges on gimmicky with the advanced vocabulary-laden prose, that doesn’t feel like a major fault until it gives way to being replaced by fake words for the remainder of the novel. The trick gets old fast, making the advanced real words sometimes overlap in one’s mind as an elemental tool with the fake ones to come. Graedon writes well, but only rarely does it seem profound or elegant. Rather than words being carefully chosen to fit the flow and of the sentence, they are instead chosen to fit the style, or theme moreso, of the novel’s plot. An early chapter from the point of view of secondary character Bart is the most vocabulary-heavy, but it is also this chapter out of the whole novel that contains the deepest musings on the theme of language, delving into philosophy and other intellectually stimulating backgrounds. But for the literary richness of character relationships, nothing is quite achieved.
Instead, the novel seems to delve further and further into being genre, a combination of a mystery (what happened to Ana’s father) and a near-future techno-thriller. OK, so can the novel at least just then be simply enjoyed as genre entertainment? Sadly, the novel doesn’t quite get this right either, though again it does have some things in its favor. The technology of the ‘Memes’ work wonderfully and believably within the novel, a horror that is easily imaginable. The increasing reliance and emotional dependence on mobile connected technology is highly disturbing, much as it was to Ellul who I happen to be reading now too. But, rather than focusing just on these Memes and the technologies direct effects, Graedon creates this incomprehensible scenario where the technology is somehow exerting effects as a biological virus. How exactly this occurs is explained eventually in the novel, yet even then did not make particular logical, biological sense. Handled in other science fiction outlets, here this idea of a language or word virus, simply doesn’t work as believable science fiction.
That could be okay, I am fine with suspended disbelief even in SF. Yet even still, the actual entertainment of the story line and the reader’s engagement with it, sort of plods along. A good third of the novel could be taken out and with some edits to make the deletion seamless, I don’t think the story would be any worse, but in fact better. The plot drags along as the protagonist Ana slowly comes to realize what is going on and where her father may be (and as she proceeds to ignore every bit of advice/warning given to her, thereby prolonging the moment of realizations). The outbreak of the ‘virus’ similarly limps along until sudden chaos erupts in the final portion of the novel.
Filled with lots of wonderful pieces (I loved the retro feel of the Luddite-type society and the use of the pneumatic message tubes), the sum total of “The Word Exchange” somehow fails. In a way the whole of the novel is somehow symbolic of many of the sentences found within it (due to the word virus): phrases of lucidity but lots of meaningless contrafibulations interspersed throughout the crotix that end up making the message of the yozil fail to manifest or grok. Never quite reaching impressive literary feats, but also failing to be more than the average genre novel, the whole feels unremarkable. However, this isn’t a terrible book either. If you are really enticed by books, language, etc, and the description speaks to you, this could be well worth your time. But if you are picky and want something special, this may not be it. Ultimately if you do give it a read, trust your impressions after the first few chapters.