Thriller about the dictionary (!) aims high and falls just short

The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon (Random House, 2014)

In the not-so-distant future nearly everyone owns a Meme, a sort of supercharged iPhone that can access information not only across the Internet but inside your brain. It knows to call a cab when you get in the elevator to head home from work. It can order for you at restaurants, anticipating what you will want to eat, bypassing the need for waiters and waitresses and their forced chumminess. And it can provide you with all the entertainment you could ever want, from videos (“streams”) to art (“glyphs”) to books.

In fact, so successful are Memes at running their owners’ lives, the need for the printed word is all but gone. Newspapers, magazines, and books have all gone online, the better to be accessed by Meme, and dictionaries have been superseded by The Word Exchange, an online program that instantly pops up definitions on the Meme’s screen when it hears a word spoken in your conversations that you don’t recognize. It’s so quick and easy to look up what you don’t know — phone numbers, song titles, word definitions — that people stop bothering to remember … well, anything. So what happens when a virus spreads a sort of “word flu” inside the Meme operating system that leaves people unable to think straight, speak coherently or use language at all?

That’s the premise of The Word Exchange, a book that has a big, exciting premise and lots of small successes but fails to completely pull together into a satisfying whole. The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of Anana, who works with her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). The edition that is about to be printed will be the last printed dictionary on earth and when Doug disappears just prior to the big launch, Anana suspects something sinister might have happened to him. But who could be behind his disappearance? Who wants to suppress the NADEL’s publication? What is going on in the boiler room in the dictionary’s basement? And why are Anana and lots of other people suddenly unable to remember even the simplest vocabulary as she searches for answers?

Along with the suspenseful aspects of the plot (“a thriller about the dictionary” is how I described it to my friend Liz), Graedon provides long swatches of conversation and musings by Anana and co-worker Bart on the meaning of language and words. A fair bit of it went over my head, since I was sick the day we covered philosophy in school (ahem), but I got enough of the gist to appreciate what might be at stake in a world where printed words no longer exist. If there’s no authoritative source to prove what a word means (given that online definitions can be altered in the blink of an eye), who gets to write the definitions? And what if the people in charge don’t have the most noble intentions?

I wanted to love this book more than I did, although I liked it plenty. It felt as though Graedon expended so much energy and space on both the background of how Memes became so ubiquitous and the philosophy of language that the actual day-to-day plot got shoved to the side at times. The big reveal of the bad guys was a bit anticlimactic.

It felt as if The Word Exchange wanted to be two different books — a suspenseful mystery and a love letter to language and the written word — and in the end both suffered a bit for being crammed into the same suitcase. I still think it’s well worth reading, however, for the ways it will make you think about how much you’ve ceded your memory to your computer and smartphone, and how much you love the way language can communicate the human experience in all its glory and despair.


Reading ‘The Shining’ at 19 and 49

the shining-newMy friend Mamie and I have embarked on a shared read of The Shining. I wanted to re-read it prior to starting the new sequel, Doctor Sleep, because it’s been so long since I read it. So far I have gotten to Chapter 20, which is about a third of the way through. I had forgotten how much stuff happens before the really really bad stuff happens, but that’s Stephen King for you. He builds the suspense with a plethora of quotidian detail and just a few hints of what’s to come, so that when the shit hits the fan you are totally invested in the characters and the situation.

I first read The Shining back in the mid-1980s. I was working part-time at the local newspaper as a sports stringer. Part of my job was hanging out in the office at night to take phone calls from coaches reporting their game results and box scores. The office was closed, of course, so I was alone in the building and usually didn’t bother turning on any extra lights other than the ones that burned all night and were more than adequate to see and read by.

I was 19, maybe 20 years old. I was already head-over-heels in love with newspapers and journalism, and I loved being alone in the building, where I could snoop around in the advertising department’s clip art library, play with the waxer (for page pasteup, not legs and eyebrows) and the old Linotype headline writer, and look at the pictures everyone kept on their desk. (Yes, I was a weird kid who grew up into a weird young adult and then … well, you can guess the rest.)

I would usually be there until about 11 p.m. or midnight, and there was lots of waiting time between coaches’ phone calls. I always brought along whatever book I was reading at the time. I locked the doors while I was there alone even though this was a small town (about 9,000 people) and there was little chance of anything bad happening. I was never afraid to be there by myself. Except…

Except the night I brought along The Shining. It isn’t particularly scary at first, as you know if you’ve read it. I mean, now we know what to expect from a Stephen King book so even when you’re reading the opening chapters of Under the Dome or 11/22/63  you are already mentally on edge for the horror to start, but back then I hadn’t read much of his stuff (there really wasn’t much of his stuff yet to read) so I didn’t know that.

The night I’m thinking of, I had gotten to the chapter I just finished reading tonight, Chapter 19, when young Danny has an encounter in a hotel hallway with a fire extinguisher. I won’t say more, but if you’ve read it I know you remember. I sat there at my desk in the newsroom of that empty, quiet-but-not-silent building, and reading every paragraph of that chapter was an agony of terror and anticipation. I kept forgetting to breathe and then gasping more air into my lungs. When the phone rang, I yelped out loud.

As I started re-reading The Shining this past Monday, I mentally prepared myself not to be disappointed because it was unlikely the book would affect me the same way now. Not only am I older and have more experience of the world, I already know what happens in the end. I told myself it would still be interesting to re-read from a more analytical perspective, to see how King’s writing has developed over the years and how he structured the story, etc etc etc.

Well, forget all that. Chapter 19 scared the bejesus out of me at 49 just as surely as it did at 19. I could scarcely stand reading to the end of the chapter and when I finally got there, I had to put the book down and do something else. I will not be reading any more in this book tonight, or any night after dark. We can analyze and theorize and intellectualize all we want about books and writing. Stephen King still scares the pants off me, and I hope he always will.

Godey jumps the tracks with ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’

pelham123What happens when four men hatch a daring plot to take a New York City subway train hostage, demanding one million dollars ransom for its passengers? Will the city agree to pay the ransom? Can the police figure out how to stop the criminals without risking the lives of the 17 passengers? Even if they receive the money, how on earth does the gang think it can escape from a subway tunnel that’s crawling with cops both above and below ground? John Godey’s 1973 novel offers up an original caper at the heart of a novel that captures very well the cultural vibe of its time and place. Unfortunately, there seems to be something essential missing from what should be a pulse-quickening suspense story that leaves the end result somewhat short of excellence.

Perhaps it’s Godey’s choice of telling the story from the points of view of a plethora of characters: each of the four criminals, an undercover cop who is on board the hijacked train, the flu-stricken mayor and his chief of staff, a half dozen or so cops and and equal numbers of Transit Authority officials and hostages. Godey switches the viewpoint rapidly among them in short little passages that were never really long enough to build tension. Even worse, the short vignettes don’t allow the reader to get to know each character. Several times I would read the subheading that was simply a name and have to stop and think about which character that actually was. Perhaps to compensate, Godey gave each of them one or more very distinctive characteristics that leave them seeming a bit cartoonish. (Part of this exaggerated sensation might also come from the very dated feel of the novel; it probably didn’t seem so over-the-top to a contemporary reader.)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not without its strong points, however. Godey effectively portrays the societal tensions of the time period between blacks and white, between squares and hippies, between elites and working class. In particular, the passages featuring the mayor, while almost entirely extraneous to the plot, give Godey a chance to wax cynical about politicians. Several of the characters exhibit the sort of casual racism that barely merited a raised eyebrow back then, which Godey does not overtly condone or condemn. Nor does he settle for stereotypes in his characterizations. There are black and white racists, there are black and white heroes, some of the racists are also heroes. And the gang’s plan for escaping the tunnel was both clever and plausible.

In the end, though, the story never developed the sort of suspense and tension that makes a reader compulsively keep going to find out what happens next. I found it all too easy to put the book down after reading a chapter or two, and while I remained interested in what would happen next I was never in much doubt about the general way things would end. There have been at least three film adaptations of the story, though it’s hard to imagine how the book’s extensive interior monologues were presented in a cinematic way. I suspect the films took significant liberties with Godey’s presentation if not his plot. I’d still like to watch the 1974 original (starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam), if not the 2009 version starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington (though I do love me some Denzel). In short, I’m glad I read this novel. Even if it fell considerably short of a classic suspense tale, it was reasonably entertaining and interesting for its depiction of early 1970s New York City.

‘Ocean at the End of the Lane’ makes a big creepy splash

How does he do it? How does Neil Gaiman, a grown man “of a certain age” manage to so effortlessly recall the inner voice and outer actions of a little boy? This short novel is a delightful mix of coming-of-age and creepy thriller, with a final chapter that made me sigh deeply in satisfaction of how the story ended despite the lack of “happy ever after”.

Ocean‘s story is told through the memories of a middle-aged man looking back at events that happened when he was 7 years old. The grown man is back in his home county in England for a funeral (though we never learn who has died), and he takes the opportunity to revisit his childhood home and that of Lettie Hempstock, the slightly (or greatly, depending on how you look at it) older girl who lives down the lane. Behind her house is what looks like a duck pond to our young narrator, though Lettie insists it is an ocean. As the man sits on a bench next to the pond, he begins to remember what really happened all those years ago.

Gaiman perfectly inhabits the body and voice of his young narrator. Again and again, the boy’s reaction to those around him — his pesky little sister, his loving but somewhat absentminded parents, Lettie and her mysterious womenfolk, the horrific nanny who comes to live with him and who cannot be budged — is pitch-perfect. The little boy is shy and quiet, much more comfortable in the company of a book than other boys his age. Even as Lettie takes him on some eerie adventures, and helps him deal with the consequences of those adventures back in the real world, Gaiman makes the reader feel the little boy’s inner strength as well as his sheer terror.

The real-world elements have the ring of sincerity about them, and strangely so do the otherworldly elements. One of Gaiman’s gifts is that he doesn’t try to over-explain the hows and whys of the supernatural elements that appear in his books. They simply are, and the reader believes and struggles to understand even as Gaiman’s characters do. We never fully learn where Lettie and her kin came from or when, but in the end it doesn’t matter. They exist, clearly, because the little boy sees and feels them and the consequences of what they do. No one watching television for the first time ever demands to know how the picture and sound gets inside that little box before they can enjoy the sensation. There’s a time and a place for magic, and no one understands that better than Gaiman.


REVIEW: Chasing the Dime

A computer genius is on the verge of hooking a major financial backer for his nanotechnology firm when a strange coincidence — the new phone number he’s issued when he and his wife split turns out to have belonged to a now-missing high-rent call girl — threatens everything he’s worked so hard to achieve. This book never clicked for me. Part of it may be that I am pretty much a science idiot, and there is a lot of scientific babble slowing down the advancement of the plot. But the main reason was that I simply did not find it believable that such a smart guy, with everything on the line professionally, would allow himself to be distracted by a weird amateur-detective turn on behalf of a woman he had never met.

LibraryThing review: Fear the Worst

This suspenseful novel starts out in a very promising way with every parent’s worst nightmare: A divorced father is dumbfounded and frantic when his teenage daughter doesn’t come home from her summer job one evening. When he goes to her workplace to inquire about her, they claim not to know who she is. So if she wasn’t going to work every day, where was she going, and where is she now?

The first two-thirds of Fear the Worst are solid, filled with a frantic dad trying to convince everyone, including the police, that his daughter’s an innocent teen mixed up in some scary stuff. I know you won’t be shocked — shocked! — to hear that the police not only don’t believe him, they think he had something to do with her disappearance. But the ending is so weirdly convoluted I’m still not sure I understand exactly what happened. Between dead bodies showing up on dad’s lawn and a climactic scene at a shabby Catskills resort, it’s a disappointing denouement to an otherwise tense thriller.