[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
When I started listening to Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange on audiobook (read by Tavia Gilbert and Paul Michael Garcia), I was bowled over. The sheer beauty of Graedon’s language, the book’s inventive dictionary structure, its references to Alice in Wonderland, and the compellingly plausible mystery of the Word Flu hooked me from the beginning. But… ah, there’s always a but, isn’t there?
The Word Exchange is largely composed of the journal entries of two employees of the NADEL, the North American Dictionary of the English Language: Anana “Ana” Johnson and Horace “Bart” Tate. Ana’s father, Doug Johnson, is the NADEL’s general editor, and he has gone missing, leaving behind one clue: the word “Alice.” As Ana and Bart try to get to the bottom of Doug’s disappearance, they uncover an even more sinister truth: something, or someone, is destroying language, starting by wiping out the NADEL’s corpus and ending with a pandemic virus that attacks human language centers, rendering people incapable of speaking or processing language as they used to.
The world Graedon writes about in The Word Exchange is not too far removed from our world, perhaps only a few years in the future. In this world, Memes — devices something like our smart-phones, but with a lot more features, such as the ability to predict the user’s needs — are ubiquitous. People hail cabs, pay bills, text, chat, and play games on them. They also use them to look up words on the titular The Word Exchange, a sort of online dictionary. So far, so familiar, right?
Doug’s disappearance coincides with the release of a new version of the Meme — the Nautilus. This device attaches directly to the user’s skin, merges with their bio-matter, and does not require a screen. Instead, it projects images, smells, sounds, and other sensations directly into the brain. Oh, and it gives the user an overwhelming sense of calm and well-being. Not creepy at all…
Doug, an inveterate lover of print and books, has always warned Ana against using her Meme. His worries are proven correct when Ana discovers that use of the Meme (and, to a greater extent, the Nautilus) is strongly correlated with the Word Flu, a disease that is spreading through English language speakers. Before it kills you, the Word Flu manifests as mild to severe aphasia, which Graedon has cunningly inserted into the first-person narrative of her characters. The effect is incredibly eerie. Ana and Bart both begin to use words that aren’t words: “zhaman,” “eezow,” and “lavo.” While the reader can still make out the meaning from the context, the casual, off-hand delivery of these words lends The Word Exchange a deep sense of foreboding.
Ultimately, the Big Bad ends up being a corporation, and the academics, banded together in a secret group called the Diachronic Society, help save the day and civilization by coming up with a cure for the Word Flu. Spoiler: it involves reading books. Hooray for the Humanities!
Graedon’s writing is strong, lyrical, and descriptive; I was especially impressed with the verbs she chose, as in this sentence: “My neck petalled with heat.” The writing was also emotionally resonant. I caught myself choking up several times as Ana described her frustration, panic, and sadness. At the same time, it was emotionally restrained. Take this example, Ana’s description of two ex-lovers having coffee: “Doug said it was ‘nice,” Vera that it was ‘pleasant,” which I think means it was sad for both of them.” That understatement completely captures the sense of resignation and loss I associate with meetings-with-exes.
But, after a while, the detail The Word Exchange lavishes on us became too much for me. There are so many consciously creative descriptions of people (“a laconic brunette with luminescent eyes who speaks as if she has marbles in her mouth”) and of physical sensations* (“my stomach fluttered like a wind-torn plastic bag”) that, at some point, it just felt like showing off. Worse, it got in the way of the story moving forward.
The main character, as quirky and lovable as she was at first, also began to grate on me. Several reviews have pointed out how TSTL Ana is and it’s true; she puts herself in danger several times against the warning of her friends, her past experience, and her better judgment. But even dumber, I feel, is her attraction to either of the men in her life. Both Max, the rich cheating ex-boyfriend with a gold toilet, and Bart, the overlooked sweet-and-sensitive work-friend, are pretty arrogant and proprietary of Ana. Max’s attitude towards her is more obvious, and more egregious, but I was also put off by Bart’s assumption that he’s the only guy in the world capable of really “getting” Ana. He seems to think that, because he loves her for her brain and her body, he automatically deserves her. (Also, Bart name-drops European philosophers and cool bands and calls his thoughts his “pensées,” so, no.)
Listening to The Word Exchange on audio also had its strengths and weaknesses. I really enjoyed both readers. Gilbert especially read with an emotional range that contributed to my verklempt-ness. And hearing the book rather than seeing it compounded the eerie feeling I got when Graedon began dropping the verbal “slips” into her character’s speech. Instead of being able to scan back over a word visually and confirm that it was a “slip,” I was perpetually in the position of the characters themselves, wondering “Did I just hear what I think I heard?” At the same time, though, hearing it occluded some of Graedon’s creativity. Some of the “slip” words, for instance, were spelled with Cyrillic letters, a difference that didn’t come across strongly in audio. And one of the book’s best examples of word play, the Creatorium (rather than the cretorium), didn’t come across at all; I had no idea until I looked at a paper copy that the word was intentionally spelled differently.
In the end, however, the biggest problem I had with The Word Exchange was that, without exception, it privileges the written word over the digital text. While I will be the first to admit that the relentless digitization of our world has its problems, I am not a doomsayer. The history of language is full of sea-changes and each one has come with its attendant crisis. Language always changing slowly, imperceptibly; that process just speeds up when a new technology appears. From stone to manuscript, to hand-press print, to industrialized automated printing, to digital text — each of these textual revolutions came with major shifts in the methods of (and purposes for) disseminating human language. And each one inspired fear and concern. When the print revolution happened, people associated printed texts with low-class, with trash, with easily disseminated heresy, evil, and wickedness. They worried about the rise of literacy hurting our eyes and causing diseases like brain fever and hysteria. They worried about not being able to remember things any longer because they’d be written down. Language and access to language has always been policed (who gets to write? who is taught to read? what kind of texts can they access, and how?) and the current furor surrounding the digital revolution is not fundamentally different from the worries that happened when print was invented and began to be widely used, nor is it different from worries that attended the rise of radio, TV, the telephone, etc.
Despite this, people still resist language change. While it does not seem like Graedon is one of those people herself (she admits to using a smart-phone), her book memorializes written and printed text, puts it on a pedestal. Graedon’s book speaks to our nostalgia for print, a nostalgia I certainly take part in, but it doesn’t really offer much else as a compelling alternative to the digital world we already live in.
*An interesting experiment would be to count how many different ways Graedon describes Ana’s sensation of nervousness.