Conspiracies are to novels as zombies are to movies, a reliable plot device that gives characters something to rail against/be a part of, and from which all sorts of action ensues.
Ayn Rand and Robert A. Heinlein created elaborate science fiction conspiracies. Rand’s have apparently inspired grandiose dreams of libertarians who conspire to take their money and live happily ever after in the mountains somewhere. Heinlein’s conspiracies were a bit more subtle. His heroes were also part and parcel of conspiracies in which the participants basically had realistically described super powers: Long life, in the novel Methuselah’s Children, psychic powers in the classic Stranger in a Strange Land, and in many novels and short stories, simply greater-than-average intelligence. The conspiracists were the heroes who understood that they were fundamentally different from all the ordinary Janes and Joes of the world.
Of course, we’ve also got conspiracies in which the heroes are outsiders, at least at first, and the conspiracy and its agents are the antagonists. Dan Brown has legions of fans to prove the popularity of the genre. One of the reasons that conspiracies are so much fun is that it’s great to be in on the secret. As the reader, you discover the way the world works, and you now are one of the elect; your neighbor, brother-in-law, third-grade teacher or extended family of muggles really don’t have any idea of what the hell is going on.
But you, the reader, racing along with the protagonist in a novel of world-shaking conspiracy — the scales have fallen from your eyes. In the work of fiction that you are enjoying, you are like a god. (Of course, this may be why people believe in outlandish conspiracies in the real world, and that’s probably a dangerous thing. But this is a review of fiction, so enjoy!)
Conspiracy novels are fun, but they can be very serious fun, too. A touchstone of conspiracy novels that manages to be a serious book is Theodore Roszak’s brilliant Flicker, a novel from 1991 that somehow integrates the ever-popular conspiracy theories of the Knights Templar with independent art films, film criticism, cheesy drive-in horror flicks, Gnostic dualism and the apocalypse. (Spoiler: The end is next year. Watch out for scary movies.) Flicker made me look at conspiracies, movies and the end of the world in a whole different way. That’s perhaps the best definition I have ever heard for art, too.
Now comes Max Barry. Barry, as Max or Maxx, has been around since his first novel, Syrup, got rave reviews in 1999. He is very hip, very smart and very modern. Although there’s humor in his work, he’s got a dark, dystopian view of consumerism, corporatism, politics and society that weaves throughout. In his follow-up novel, Jennifer Government, you watch as people form violent alliances based on corporate teams and the utter dissolution of any sense of privacy … and if you don’t think that’s happening, you haven’t been paying attention.
Barry’s latest, Lexicon, is a classic of conspiracy. Again, it’s smart and it’s hip. Barry, an Australian, looks at the power of words to not just influence people, but to control them. He references the twisted analytics of Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz, medieval conjuring and the power of the national security state to suggest a massive conspiracy involving the control of people with specific words.
To tell this story, Barry creates a cast of characters that are both manipulators and manipulated. They are people you can relate to — a three-card monte dealer from the streets of San Francisco, a prep-school kid, a hard-working man — up against a threat that has repeatedly caused the destruction of human civilization.
There are a couple of love stories embedded in the novel, including one between the card dealer, essentially a street kid elevated into the conspiracy’s training school, and a slightly older student. Both are challenged to learn and use the awesome powers that they are developing.
But a tragedy, one of a series, spins things out of control, and we learn that it’s not only the young people who are challenged to use these powers responsibly. It’s no spoiler to say that there are some very sad and scary and violent plot twists, but the story, like all good conspiracy yarns, consistently reflects some of the headline-grabbing, ugly realities that we see on the nightly news — and sometimes those events are sad and scary and violent.
Along the way, Barry asks some good questions. Isn’t any successful marketing campaign a kind of magic? Isn’t the ability of a small group to control our desires and actions an extraordinary kind of conspiracy? And can you really be so sure that you are not driven by instructions that you’re not even aware of?
With the advanced tools of marketing and Internet technology available to the conspiracy, everyone can be controlled, Barry postulates. You might guess that this is not necessarily a good thing, and you’d be right. It’s a very, very bad thing.
Lexicon is a hell of a ride into conspiracy, but it’s a lot of fun too.
This is a novel that will make you think about the nature of conspiracies — and about the possibility that Barry’s conspiracy is not just a novelistic device but might be describing more than we’d like to admit about ourselves and our societies.
LEXICON, Max Barry, Penguin, 400 pages.