‘The Word Exchange’: New novel blends suspense, philosophy

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August 10, 2014 | 12:01 am

In “The Word Exchange” (Doubleday, 370 pages, $26.95), Alena Graedon imagines a near future in which a single company makes a play to control not only content, but meaning itself.

Graedon’s debut novel blends plausible concerns about advances in technology and the purposes for which it might be exploited with a creatively executed narrative. The novel is built around philosophical arguments but Graedon also keeps the suspense ratcheted up.

The book opens with the disappearance of the editor of “North America Dictionary of the English Language.” His daughter, Anana, sets out to find him, but soon is in the grips of “Word Flu,” a mysterious illness that causes, among other symptoms, aphasia, which makes communication with others extremely difficult.

Anana narrates much of the book, but we also hear from Bart, who is secretly in love with her and is a devotee of her father and his work.

Graedon nimbly handles the technical difficulty of portraying the perniciousness of the loss of shared language without rendering her own narrative too difficult to follow. She also offers a warning against allowing our increasing powerful devices to do all of our thinking and remembering for us. This cautionary note sounded loud and clear each time I picked up my own device to check the definitions of a word in the text.

“The Word Exchange” is an impressive accomplishment, raising real-world concerns while providing a satisfying tale of resistance to seemingly overwhelming forces, both cultural and corporate.

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