As in Uffish Thought: Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange

Reading The Word Exchange against the backdrop of the protracted business negotiations between Hachette Book Group and online retailer, and the extended public debate surrounding those negotiations, gave Alena Graedon’s debut novel an extra layer of frisson. The story is set in a near-future Manhattan where our lives have become “slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, liner notes, and diaries.” Instead, we have Memes: ubiquitous electronic devices that are like personal digital assistants, smartphones, and tablet computers rolled into one. They can even administer sleeping medication in small doses.

One of the companies that’s profiting off our dependence on Memes, Synchronic, has been buying the rights to the world’s dictionaries, building up towards a monopoly of meaning in which their “Word Exchange” would be the only way to get the definition of an unfamiliar word… for a price. (And once that monopoly is secure, of course, “nothing would prevent Synchronic from adjusting the price of words up.) The two major holdouts are the real-life Oxford English Dictionary and the fictional North American Dictionary of the English Language; the story begins when Anana, the daughter of the North American Dictionary’s editor, discovers that her father has vanished under mysterious circumstances. As she searches for him, she learns about the Synchronic plot, which turns out to be much grander, and much more sinister, than simply owning the language.

The dystopia of The Word Exchange isn’t rooted in catastrophic natural disasters or blindly destructive wars, but it does take on an increasingly apocalyptic tone as the Memes begin to spread a “word flu” across New York and then further out. When one person begins to lose his or her grasp on language, as Anana does to some extent and other characters do at a much deeper level, it’s an intimate crisis; when that loss begins to spread across society, Graedon suggests, chaos probably won’t take too long to kick in. The novel’s paranoid undercurrent works well in conjunction with the extended symbolic framework based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, imbuing Anana’s search with a vibe somewhat reminiscent of ‘80s cyberpunk—a world where technology is as likely to reinforce our worst tendencies as it is to improve our lives. Yet while Graedon may invoke a variant of the “Internet makes us stupid” argument over the course of Anana’s quest, that’s not her final answer. It’s not just that our modes of reading and thinking are changing through new usage patterns, after all, but that those usage patterns are being cynically manipulated by media conglomerates (and aspiring conglomerates).

Going by that, it’s easy to read Graedon’s story as an anti-Amazon allegory—particularly, as noted above, at a moment when (some) people are increasingly inclined to take a critical look at Amazon’s way of doing business with the publishing industry, in the same way that the language lovers of the novel’s semi-underground Diachronic Society explicitly define themselves in opposition to Synchronic. Maybe too easy. You want—I want, anyway—a novel to do something beyond fire buckshot at the side of a distribution center-sized barn, and I think The Word Exchange does have more to it, starting with Graedon’s love of words and language in all their complexity and ambiguity. Chances are you already share that love if you’re picking up this novel in the first place—whether you do or not, though, Graedon couches her philosophical argument for that love in an effectively suspenseful plot that keeps us invested not just in Anana’s search for her father, but her ability to resist succumbing to the “word flu” as it wreaks its havoc on the world around her.

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

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6 August 2014 | read this |