By now, the printed word must feel like a mashup of Tom Sawyer and the movie Groundhog Day. For probably a couple decades now, it has attended its own funeral over and over and over and over, ad nauseum. But if we assume one of those countless pronouncements of death is correct, what about words and language generally? In Alena Graedon’s first novel, The Word Exchange, they’re endangered by technology and evil corporations.
Graedon tells the story through two of a handful of main characters. At its center is Anana Johnson, who works with her father, Doug, the editor of the forthcoming new edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). The other narrator is “Bart,” the dictionary’s deputy editor and Doug’s protege, whose handwritten journal entries relate his view of events. (Bart’s actual name is Horace Tate but he is referred to almost exclusively as Bart, short for the name “Bartleby” Graedon has Doug bestow upon him from Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” ) Doug mysteriously disappears just days before the launch of the NADEL edition he’s been working on for years and Anana’s search for him, aided by Doug, is the vehicle for the story.
The core of The Word Exchange is the impact of technology, specifically something called the Meme. Sounding like an extremely powerful smartphone, the Meme uses adaptive wear to communicate with the brain through electrical signals. It can instantly provide any information needed to communicate with others, study, buy things, get a cab, prove identity, and remember details about life, friends and family. In other words, it is the source for the information needed for and interactions of daily life. The Meme can even predict or suggest courses of action, purchases and ideas. This has led an untold number of users to undergo off-label implantation of microchips to enhance the Meme’s “neuronal efficiency.”
Like almost any virtually ubiquitous product, there are a variety of applications for the Meme creates a market for other companies, including the online Word Exchange. It provides Meme users immediate access to the definitions, synonyms and antonyms of words and, with the device’s predictive abilities, will supply words used in reading or conversing with others — for two cents a word. Synchronic, the maker of the Meme and owner of the Word Exchange, has been so successful in buying publishers’ copyrights to printed dictionaries, thesauri and similar word reference works that the only printed dictionary that will remain is the new NADEL.
Some, including a mysterious underground group called The International Diachronic Society, believe the Meme reroutes pathways in the brain. They point out that, rather than being able to remember words, people now rely on the Word Exchange. They fear not only the consequences of the average American being unable to read most anything without resorting to the Word Exchange but also the company’s effective ownership of words. There are also rumors of occasional incidents of “word flu,” a condition of unknown origin that reduces the afflicted to speaking largely in gibberish.
Amidst all this, Synchronic — which also happens to be the name of a method of language study that directly contrasts with the diachronic method — is preparing to release a new device, the Nautilus, which will connect with the brain more directly. Another company is working to deploy a new game in which Meme users create new words and vote on them for future incorporation in the Word Exchange. Synchronic recently bought the company, which was founded by Max King, who just happens to be not only Bart’s former college roommate but the longtime boyfriend who recently dumped Alana.
The Word Exchange‘s characters are lenses to examine both the societal impact of technology and the meaning of language and words. Bart is essentially a word nerd fascinated with Hegelian philosophy. Doug’s more traditional, almost anachronistic, love of the printed word represents one end of the spectrum while Max wants to be an integral part of the future. Anana and Bart, meanwhile, are akin to average Meme users but sufficiently conversant with the world of words to see both sides of the clash between past and future.
Because many of the characters are philologists, there is a tendency toward five-dollar words, particularly in Bart’s journals. In addition, extensive core information is presented by way of summary in an op-ed written by the Diachronic Society and a letter to Anana from Doug. Whether either is reasonable or a distraction will depend on the individual reader.
Graedon also uses more traditional tropes. One is Bart’s unrequited love for Alana and the reader knowing long before either of them that she has fallen in love with him. Likewise, as tends to happen in a struggle for primacy, there are the occasional very narrow escapes from danger and death. In fact, some seem akin to a character ignoring specific warnings (or the horror movie character who insists on opening the door everyone but them seems to know they shouldn’t) or even acting contrary to the picture Graedon has painted of them.
Mining dystopia, evil corporations, conspiracies and secret societies, the concept and framework of The Word Exchange are creditable. Unfortunately, it is undermined in the execution.
The skills we once used for survival — scattered attention, diffuse concentration — have been adapted to finding glowing dots on screens, skimming pop-ups, beams, emails, video streams.
Alena Graedon, The Word Exchange