Wordy, dystopic tale ideal for an e-reader

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Alan MacKen­zie

BROOK­LYN-BASED Alena Grae­don’s am­bi­tious but un­even de­but novel is a ter­ri­fy­ing tale for lan­guage lovers that just begs to be read on an e-reader. One of the great fea­tures of most e-read­ers is their abil­ity to look up the mean­ing of a word with a sim­ple click — a great in­di­ca­tor of how the au­thor’s dystopian vi­sion might not be so far-fetched. Set in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, The Word Ex­change en­vi­sions a world where the printed word is ba­si­cally dead. Book­stores and li­braries are vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent, dic­tio­nar­ies are nearly ex­tinct, and al­most ev­ery­one uses a “Meme” — a de­vice that takes the smart­phone con­cept to a new level. A Meme can be worn as a head­band or, in its new­est form, at­tached to the skin or im­planted di­rectly into the brain. In ad­di­tion to ev­ery­thing that smart­phones cur­rently do, Memes are able to an­tic­i­pate a user’s wants and needs. At the first sign of hunger, the Meme of­fers to or­der take­out. As you head out the door, it asks if you need a cab. And if you can’t think of the right word, the Meme finds it for you through the Word Ex­change, an on­line store that sells words and def­i­ni­tions for prices so low that on­the-go users don’t mind pay­ing. The story be­gins with the dis­ap­pear­ance of Dou­glas Sa­muel John­son, chief edi­tor of the fic­tional North Amer­i­can Dic­tio­nary of the English Lan­guage (NADEL), which is set to have its fi­nal print edi­tion re­leased. Doug’s daugh­ter, Anana, who also works at NADEL’s New York of­fice, and her co-worker Bart, an anti-tech­nol­ogy lex­i­cog­ra­pher, set out to find him, and are soon caught in a con­spir­acy that in­volves Syn­chronic, the com­pany that cre­ated the Meme, and the spread of an ill­ness called “word flu” that causes people to speak and write in gib­ber­ish, po­ten­tially de­stroy­ing all com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The nar­ra­tive is told through the jour­nals of Anana and Bart, which works to great ef­fect when Bart starts show­ing signs of the word flu, us­ing non­sen­si­cal words in place of com­mon ones. An ex­am­ple: “I be­came gen­uinely dannkh,” Bart writes. This makes for a chal­leng­ing read at times, but it is also one of the book’s amus­ing charms. Un­for­tu­nately, though, Anana and Bart have a ro­man­tic sub­plot that feels a bit con­trived. They also both tend to ram­ble, which makes the book drag a bit at times. And Anana’s forced vo­cab­u­lary can be a bit frus­trat­ing as well — she’ll have read­ers reach­ing for a dic­tio­nary or click­ing for def­i­ni­tions of­ten (there’s a rea­son for this, though, which is ex­plained to­ward the end). De­spite these flaws, The Word Ex­change has a clever con­cept and its vi­sion of a fu­ture of height­ened tech­nol­ogy de­pen­dence and lan­guage de­cay feels like it’s only a few small steps from where we are now. Alan MacKen­zie is a Win­nipeg-based writer

and edi­tor.

The Word Ex­change

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