Budding romance between two star-crossed lovers?
Reading as a solution to impaired communication skills?
Occasionally astonishing writing?
Sounds tempting, right?
Unfortunately, it was implemented with portentous statements every other page(1), a heroine bordering on TSTL(2), thesaurus-based writing(3), footnotes(4), and frequently poor writing(5).
Ana is an employee at the New York office of North American Dictionary of the English Language (also called “the Dictionary”), along with her dad, Doug. Ana is supposed to meet him for dinner but he never shows. His absence is unusual enough that she returns to work in case he’s still there. Ana stops into a nearby office to leave a note for Bart and discovers Bart sleeping beneath his desk.
The setting is far enough in the future that most people use a Meme, a device that is a great deal like a smart smartphone, not only instantly connecting users to the rest of the world, but able to respond somewhat to owner habits, preferences and moods. Ana’s ex-boyfriend, Max, is part of a company on the fast track that’s releasing new game software that allows users to create new words then share and upvote them. Meanwhile, Max’s company and the Dictionary are being bought out by another company. Trouble erupts when nonsense words start making their way into conversations.
I haven’t had good luck with my NetGalley requests to date, and have been feeling somewhat guilty about it. When I received an email giving me pre-approval for The Word Exchange, I thought I’d give it a try; after all, it was billed as “A gorgeous genre mashup that offers readers the pleasures of noir, science fiction, romance and philosophy” (Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove), exactly the sort of read I should enjoy. Unfortunately, my dismal pre-read streak continues.
Great premise, contrived and awkward implementation. While there were flashes of writing beauty, they were surrounded by dark spots of awkwardness (5). I did love the concept of words building worlds.
I also liked the idea of transmission by virus.
Instances of writing I liked:
Lovely and apt phrasing: “Then I felt the delicious frisson of transgression creep over me.”
Fun: “it was late on a Friday night, around ten, and I’d fallen asleep again on a scrap pile of neologisms.”
Philosophical: “The mind acquires language because it anticipates sharing in communal expression. There’d be no point to learning private words only it can use.”
Structure was appealing, following a section formatting of thesis, antithesis and synthesis and chapters initiated by alphabet letters. Although somewhat forced, I always enjoy an orderly approach and can appreciate the symbolism. Unfortunately, that failed to carry over into the first person narrative, largely from Ana’s viewpoint but occasionally with contributions from Bart.
As each experienced the word-flu, words would occasionally be replaced with nonsense words–an intriguing concept, to be sure. Unfortunately, it would work better if the rest of the writing was less contrived and oddly structured (sentence fragments, oddly placed colons and semi-colons(6) so that the word-choice errors better represented the spread of disease. Believe me, if I’m noticing, it’s bound to drive those who pay attention to such things nutty).
World-building attempted the immersion style, but was still studded with large info-dumps relating to Ana, her history, her parents’ history, etc., which made Ana seem particularly self-centered and moony. The Meme, so central to the story, was not actually described until 66% into the book although it was frequently referred to in conversation. With the exception of the Memes, the pneumatic tube system, and the occasional driverless cab, it is a New York that will be instantly recognizable.
Overall, I’d hesitate to recommend it to any of my GR friends. Lovely germ of an idea that could benefit from improvements in execution.
Of course, all quotes are subject to change. They are from an Advanced Reader Copy courteously provided by NetGalley and may change in the final copy (Whatevs. Supposed to be published in 3 weeks).
(1) “I nodded absently, trying not to betray my vague trepidation. And then something else happened. Something that laid the track for a certain fate.”
“Even now, more than two months later, I find it hard to believe I wasn’t turned away immediately.”
“Of course, we knew none of this at the time…”
(2)To Stupid To Live: despite being told repeatedly not to turn on her Meme (similar to a cell phone), she does. Frequently.
“Confused, not really thinking, I quickly logged on to Life for the first time in weeks.”
“Twice I broke protocol and spoke to Vera...”
“That night I did something Phineas had forbidden under threat of eviction”
Then there’s her general attitude:
“I also understood: he had a lot of health problems–allergies, maybe asthma; I didn’t know what else–”
Yes, you are right. That is a lot of health problems, isn’t it??
“If Ana calls, don’t answer,” Max yelled into the pink domicile of my ear.”
” The walk from the Dictionary was short and gloomy, scattered with chicken bones and profane requests for cash.”
“(I actually wobbled on the edge of a worry that I might lacrimate.)”
“Her glaring, strobelike sense of humor, which is borderline frightening”
(4) Footnotes don’t work on a kindle. There is no link for a footnote in my version, and since pages aren’t numbered, it’s more than a little cumbersome to flip back and forth.
“Then he looked up and pierced me again with the hazel lasers of his eyes.”
“A white puff of breath clouding his face like an omen…”
“Then he told a story that peeled me away from myself.”
“my love for her actually to grow (if that’s possible) like a Mylar balloon.”
“That was among the things I had to face when he left: myself.“