His first novel, Syrup, is a satirical comedy for which the author is famous for three things: the very funny original novel, the film adaptation hitting movie and video screens this summer, and the extra X in the author name “Maxx Barry” that he thought was a funny joke about marketing but led to a lifetime of misguided ridicule.
His second and third novels, Jennifer Government and Company, were tagged by Kirkus as “bubblegum pop-future comedy” and “raucous black comedy about corporate management,” respectively, but both remain squarely within the confines of satire. Machine Man was the outlier, an experimental page-a-day online serial about a bionic man that was darker in tone than anything Barry had produced to date.
Now, we’re given Lexicon, which should, in a just world, put Barry squarely on the short list of writers like Neal Stephenson, China Miéville and William Gibson—that rarefied air of saga. While the new novel retains the flavor of Barry’s oeuvre, it comes with a hell of a lot more bite. Big Ideas, masterful construction and cinematic set pieces elevate Barry to a new level.
If you buy into Lexicon’s story—and you have to make that psychic leap off a very tall cliff with your eyes closed—you’ll be rewarded with a novel Kirkus calls “an up-all-night thriller for freaks and geeks who want to see their wizards all grown up in the real world and armed to the teeth.”
When Max Barry flickers onto the screen via Skype all the way from his home in Melbourne, Australia, I’m reminded that we live in an age of everyday miracles. Despite the audacious writing in Lexicon, Barry is reserved, smart, enthusiastic and incredibly polite.
One of the touchstones of Lexicon is a seemingly innocent questionnaire, a marketing instrument whose precision reveals a devastating amount of information about the subject. From those humble beginnings, Barry unfolds an epic about language, power, persuasion and redemption. Be forewarned that Lexicon is a novel that is easily spoiled, and while it won’t be here, remember that the best books are the ones read without reservations.
The opening of the novel is literally boy meets girl but you’ll never guess where it goes from there. In the opening pages we meet a grifter named Emily Ruff, who is indoctrinated into the very secret society of the Poets. There’s a boy, Elliot, and a school, and a secret language. Later there’s a massacre and secret identities and duels and, well, I could tell you more but I’d have to kill you. But trust that these are new voices for Barry, and he’s invested in them.
“In early drafts of the book, Emily ends up in a very dark place,” he says. “An earlier version basically plays out the story of her self-destruction. After I changed how that played out, I was much happier with the result because you can now feel you can give yourself fully to the character.”
When you read Lexicon, you may envision schematics and flow charts and sticky notes detailing how Barry wove together two parallel storylines with staggering precision. But the author says it’s just not that meticulous.
“I couldn’t have planned it all out in advance,” he says. “I try to strike this balance between discovering the story as it plays out, and planning it. Either extreme has terrible traps. Basically, the process for me is to find an interesting situation, play it out, and try to plan what happens in the short term. Then it’s so much re-writing, taking out plot turns that didn’t make sense and investing new ideas into the turns I did make.”
Inevitably, we always ask authors what their books are about, and they hate it. We’ll disguise the question, bend it and morph it, but we never skip it. I ask Barry, apologetically, and he’s completely straightforward.
“It’s a story about a man who discovers that he is important in some key way to a secret organization of manipulators,” he says. “These people are extremely skilled in the science of persuasion, using language against particular personality types. It’s basically the story of this man and a woman who is one of “The Poets,” as this group is called.”
“That’s a terrible description, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s the worst thing in the world for an author to describe his own book.”
I laugh, and he laughs and we get into how the novel really came to life.
If there is a theme that drove the inception of Lexicon, it’s the idea of persuasion. Barry is not a neophyte to this idea. He sold high-end computer systems for Hewlett-Packard, skewered the infamously manipulative Coca-Cola Company in his first novel and did market research professionally. He knows the dangers of which he speaks.
“Persuasion is something I have always been interested in,” he admits. “There aren’t too many themes that connect my novels but persuasion is a very big part of them. We are persuaded every day but we don’t like to think we are, so that persuasion tends to be quite subtle and is frequently overlooked in terms of how our decision-making is influenced.
“You find out very quickly just how easily people are manipulated,” he continues. “You can get into the core of what a person is and turn those things against them.”
Barry has never fit within the traditional confines of genre fiction—he candidly admits that his own brand is diffuse at best. But Lexicon is a quantum leap for the author, and we reached him at that marvelous point where he doesn’t know it yet.
“When you’re writing a book, it’s easy to feel like it’s going to be the best thing ever published,” he admits. “I like that moment of delusion every time I write. I also have a lot of people who have followed me from the beginning and I’d love to make them proud of me—those people who brag about having read Syrup in 1999. It would be some payback for them, too.”
The great thing about Max Barry is that for all the talent and humility, he’s a writer, first and last and always.
“For all the advice that gets passed around about how to further your career as a writer, the best thing you can do is to write a good book,” he says. “I figured once you get an agent and a publisher, it’s just a matter of sitting down at the keyboard every day. In fact, I still have to sell every book, but if you write a good one, everything becomes so much easier.”
There are still no rules. Every time Barry sits down, he’s writing for the first time. The real secret is that there’s no way to do it right—for anyone.
“You write until the words make sense,” he says. “No matter how well the book does, it’s still going to be me in a study at the keyboard messing about with words until they feel good to me.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.