Book Title: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Date Published: April 8th, 2014
Date Read: April 24th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from work
Cover Love: I love me some ombre (letters). And the background looks like a word search!
Given Synopsis: “In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.
Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .
Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchangebecomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.”
What I’d Add: I mean, doesn’t that just sound so freaking cool?!
It’s Sorta Like: The first thing that springs to mind is Wall-E. You know, where all the people on the ship live their lives in those hover chairs and never actually talk face to face. There’s some Steve Jobs/Apple stuff going on here too.
My Grade: C-
This is a book written by someone who loves words, and the intricacies of language. That sounds both promising and incredibly ambitious. But where Graedon cleverly tricks the reader into examining our relationship with language today, and our dependence on technology with a few tricky turns of world building, there are greater flaws in the big picture.
People are dependent on devices called memes in this book (so tempted to write this review completely in memes, like Grumpy Cat and cats that want Cheezburgers, but that would require too much work). But I don’t really know what a Meme is. Or what it looks like. There was mention of a circlet like device once, and I assumed throughout the novel that there was a cell phone-like screen linked to a shell-like ear piece that ostensibly made it easier to call people. But if you put a device that is essentially the eye of the storm for a huge, sweeping epidemic that encompasses perhaps the entire world by the time the novel closes, I should know what it looks like.
And I should know what it does. There were constant mentions of what the Meme is capable of: it orders food when it realizes you’re hungry, gives you information, downloads books, calls for a cab, etc. etc. etc. But only some people opt to get a chip implanted in them so that the meme can better suit their needs. I don’t really know how the meme tells its owner is hungry if they don’t have a chip in their brain. It is an All Powerful Device that can and does have powerful implications on the world it exists in. But it seems almost magic based rather than technology based. And the book blatantly cautions against relying on technology…with a device that doesn’t seem driven by feasible, logical technology.
So the science part of this science fiction-y book (this is in the fiction section of my store, technically, but it walks a fine line) is very flawed.
The characters and writing style are inconsistent. I mentally noted a lot of quotes in this book. Jotted them down in this journal I keep of great passages from novels. But I also feel like big swaths of text in the middle of the book could have been missing and I would not have missed them. It lagged. It dragged me through the main character’s terrible sleuthing and terrible mystery (clues seem to suddenly come to her, and the later explanation of their creation is not convincing). I didn’t find most of the action compelling. The author’s clear devotion to language bogs down real action and movement of plot.
But about that love of language. I did find its use and symbolism in this novel like no other novel I’ve read. People catch “word flu” from their dependence on technology and begin to use words that don’t really exist and forget commonplace words. One such character comes down with this word flu and at first the discrepancies are annoying. Needling, but passable. But as soon as you start to be able to ignore the slips (as everyone in the novel seems to do – seriously, the people in this society are clueless and lazy if they aren’t alarmed until catastrophe having to do with this erasure of language occurs. It’s a slow. Moving. Disease. They could have totally caught it early and the rest of the book would have been moot), they pop up more frequently. Finally, not a paragraph goes by without an annoying little slip. But Graedon is clever, forming language in the novel like that. At first we ignore it, until it becomes un-ignorable. Then its pervasive. You can’t get away from it and it gets a little spooky (the first time it happens I literally got chills).
Graedon also likes her words. Big words. Sometimes in need of a quick trip to a dictionary (I see what she did there, seeing as the characters work for a dictionary). But for the most part, I did think it was a nice touch: flourishing vocabulary in a world where it is a dying art.
It is such a patchy book, and I so wish the whole was more like the little bits I liked so much. The premise is amazing. The relationship to language wonderfully crafted and developed. But the characters fell flat for me, and the situations lacking in both plausibility and tension.