Title: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Rating: 3.5 stars
I read this book through my local library.
The best science fiction, particularly dystopian, speaks to our anxieties as a society. There’s a lot of handwringing going on out there about the devaluation of language, of texting and social media ruining critical thought processes and communication. Personally, I think a lot of that anxiety comes from elitism and clickbait, (see, for example, Time’s disturbingly racist and sexist list of words to ban) but Alena Graedon takes that anxiety and stretches it to its (perhaps inevitable) hyperbolic limits in The Word Exchange. She does a pretty damn good job of it, too.
In the near future, people use their Memes (think: super smart phones) for pretty much everything. The device anticipates your needs, your moods, even, sometimes, your speech. If you are, by chance, occasionally forgetful and can’t quite remember the meaning of a word, well, you can go on to the Word Exchange and download the definition. It’s cheap, only 2 cents a word. And it’s only for the most obscure words you rarely use, anyway. Until it’s not. Until Synchronic, the company behind the Meme and the Word Exchange, starts to buy up every extant dictionary in the English language, and words like “fork” are suddenly unintelligible without an Exchange Definition, and the price per definition gets jacked up. At the same time, a new game is creating made up words with a hodgepodge of alphabets and characters, and using those made up words to replace the English language. And a new disease known as the word flu is spreading, causing people to become aphasic, incoherent, uncommunicative, and, sometimes, to die.
This is a difficult book in many ways. It’s very theoretical and academic. There are a lot of things I loved about it (structure! footnotes! Easter Egg references to obscure lexicographers!), that may equally turn off a lot of readers, and even though I have a pretty strong vocabulary (I pretty much studied words for 8 years, I work with books, I write daily) I often found the writing daunting and dense. I wasn’t sure at the beginning if I really wanted to take on the reading of this book. But I knew that I was going to stick it out when I got to page 15, when the narrator, whose name I assumed was Alice (this was a reasonable assumption to make; it’s a first-person female narrator, the first chapter is titled A Alice, with the definition “a girl transformed by reflection”) says “And I knew something was wrong. Because my name isn’t Alice. Alice is a fiction. One I never thought I’d see or hear again.”
That passage outright gave me chills. Who, then, was Alice? Who was the narrator? What was the conspiracy she had just found herself thrown in the middle of?
The Word Exchange didn’t always do a great job of sustaining that tension, or living up to its promise, but it was still interesting, highly original, and timely.
Names feature prevalently in The Word Exchange. Of course, like any other word, names are signifiers, with discrete meanings. And it is no accident that pretty much every character has at least two of them. (Anana is Ana and Alice and all of her father’s little pet names, Bart is Horace and Horse, Max is Hermes King, etc. etc.) I’m slightly obsessed with the significance behind names and naming in literature, and probably my favorite part of the book was uncovering all those names and untangling what they said about the characters. It definitely stoked up my nerd love. But it was a problem too. Because I was more concerned with exploring the literary puzzles and the representation of things than I ever was with the actual plot of the book or the characters.
I like books that are challenging. I love books that are ambitious. But ultimately, I have to have a character to connect with, and I didn’t really find that here. Anana is someone that I just know, if she existed in real life, I would hate. (I genuinely love unlikeable characters…some of the time. But Anana is supposed to be a character that you root for and empathize with, she’s not supposed to be unlikeable, and so she fell flat for me.) Bart…there were points where I could have almost loved Bart, and points where he was a became cardboard cutout of a Sensitive Intelligent Male just waiting for his One True Love. And then his narrative devolved into illegibility and I was more bothered with trying to translate his actual meaning instead of caring about him. Doug, I think, was the worst transgressor of all. He’s my personal nemesis: the character composed entirely of pretentious quirks. At no time did I really want Anana to find him.
I don’t think the Death of the Book is imminent. (I don’t even think the Death of Print is imminent, though I do understand why people might.) I don’t think language–any language–is sacred; words, meaning, and how we communicate are always changing, and to bemoan those changes is to remain stuck in a nonexistent, glamorized past. And so for the most part I thought the situations in The Word Exchange rarely rose above theory and fantasy (I’m still not even sure how phones managed to transmit an actual, physical disease). But it definitely raised interesting questions, and is a daring, thoughtful book. My only wish is that I had cared more about the characters and felt more connected to their plight.