In her debut dystopian novel of and about words and meanings, understood and not understood, Alena Gradeon makes clear that language, the importance of language, and need for language in holding not just society, but families, people, and even love together is something that we cannot do without.
The Word Exchange (published by Doubleday) is both dystopian and a thriller in one “between the covers page turner.” Set sometime around or after 2020, the story begins the sudden disappearance of Douglas Samuel Johnson, Chief Editor of North American Dictionary of the English Language and the determination of his daughter Anana’s, (code named Alice after Alice in Wonderland) efforts to discover why and possibly where he is.
Her search leads us on a wild ride of increasingly stifling technology that creates both linguistic, physical, social, political, economic, and relational breakdowns. And also introduces us to a tension which is talked about today between the history and stability of the printed word (now very much gone in the novel) verses the increasing use of technology and its own language, like texting, alongside the increasing use of visuals such as pictures to communicate.
As she travels above and below the streets of New York, we are forced to confront the corporate giant Synchronic whose Word Exchange is an effort for old words and meanings to be replaced with new ones. Words are for sale. Meaning is for sale.
We also encounter a fascinating new world of what I call Technology 4.0 -Memes and Nautilus’ which becomes infected (and also is able to infect) with what becomes known as word flu – an deadly physical infection due to the ability of technology to affect a person’s biological and genetic structure. The result are rambling and psychotic people who no longer have the ability to rationally communicate.
But it is Graedon’s use of language, and the implications of a lack of a common language and the resultant set of no shared meanings, which are at the heart of this novel. A world without a common set of words and their attendant meanings is a world that comes unhinged.
There are so many references to literature and authors (and I loved the passing reference toward the end of the story to the place where C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and their group the Inklings held their meetings) that a second reading would be recommended. (Lewis Carroll fans will not be disappointed either.)
I think that Alena Graedon has given us something important to think about – the place, the value, (really pricelessness) of words, meaning, and community and the vital interplay of all three. This is demonstrated in how the treatment of word flu takes place – with silence and reflection, reading a physical book, and writing.
I have not read dystopian literature in a long time and so it took me a while to get into the story. But once I did, it was a fast-paced and unfolding drama at every turn. I liked this book because of my own interest in words and because I think this novel points out the need for words and meanings as social glue for all of humankind.
I rate this book a ‘great’ read!
Note: I received an uncorrected proof of the book from Net Galley via the publisher in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.