The Word Exchange
By Alena Graedon
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385537650, 384pp.)
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
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A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word.
In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.
Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .
Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.
Alena Graedon was born in Durham, North Carolina, and is a graduate of Brown University and the Columbia MFA program. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is her first novel.
Praise for The Word Exchange:
“[A] nervy, nerdy dystopic thriller.... Clever, breathless and sportively Hegelian in theme ... The Word Exchange combines the jaunty energy of youngish adult fiction (boyfriend trouble, parent conflicts, peer pressure and post-collegiate jitters) with the spine-tingling chill of the science-fiction conspiracy genre.... Graedon makes you wring your hands for her heroine—and tremble for the future of the English language throughout her 26 chapters, achieving the singular feat of turning the alphabet into a cliffhanger. As much fun as Graedon has with her Borgesian doomsday scenario, her novel folds serious meditations on language and society into its manhunt.”
—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
“The relationship between language, its vessels, and the woes of the status quo has been a longtime favorite theme of dystopian fiction, and it is front and center in The Word Exchange, the fast-paced, thrill-a-minute début novel of Alena Graedon.... [S]he creates a powerful sense of mystery about what, exactly, is causing ‘the word flu,’ how it is spreading, and why it is affecting different people in different ways.... [I] raced greedily to the last page, enjoying Graedon’s plot-weaving every step of the way.”
—Peter C. Barker, The New Yorker.com
“Great.... Set in the near future, the novel is a sobering look at how dependent we are on technology and how susceptible we are to the distortions of language.”
—The Washington Post
“A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning ... Language becomes a virus in this terrifying vision of ... print-empty, Web-reliant culture. Students of linguistics may run screaming from this dystopian nightmare by Brooklyn-based debut novelist Graedon, but diligent fans of Neal Stephenson or Max Barry will be richly rewarded by a complex thriller. In fact, the novel is as much about lexicography, communication and philosophy as it is about secret societies, conspiracies and dangerous technologies.”
—Kirkus, starred review
“Graedon's spectacular, ambitious debut explores a near-future America that's shifted almost exclusively to smart technologies, where print is only a nostalgia, and nostalgia is only an archaism ... With secret societies, conspiracies, and mega-corp Synchronic's menacing technologies, Graedon deploys all the hallmarks of a futuristic thriller, but avoids derivative doomsday sci-fi shtick. Instead, her novel is rife with literary allusions and philosophical wormholes that aren't only decorative but integral to characters' abilities and limitations in communicating, and it succeeds precisely because it’s as full of humanity as it is of mystery and intellectual prowess.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[The Word Exchange is] a bibliothriller of epidemic proportions ... [A] remarkable first novel, combining a vividly imagined future with the fondly remembered past to offer a chilling prediction of where our unthinking reliance on technology is leading us. And, as you’d expect, Graedon’s word choice is exquisite.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Alena Graedon’s dystopic thriller The Word Exchange... conjures a not-too-distant-future society rendered aphasic by digital technology.”
—Megan O’Grady, Vogue.com
“[A] propulsive, twisty future-noir ... [Graedon’s] vision of the future is less alarmist than alarmingly within reach. Her attention to language—and the breakdown of language—invites comparisons to writers like Anthony Burgess and Lewis Carroll. Anana is an Alice figure, and the New York City she lives in a grim, Web 4.0 wonderland.”
—The Daily Beast
“Alena Graedon makes what sounds like a preposterous premise believable in this clever first novel, a mystery set in a dystopian near future and built around the disappearance of Douglas Samuel Johnson, the editor of the North American Dictionary of English Language.”
—The Chicago Tribune
“Sharp ... [D]azzling ... [The Word Exchange] offers a snappy, noir-inflected vision of a future New York suffering from an epidemic of aphasia brought on by super-smartphones ... Graedon’s language is sparklingly inventive...[and] so enjoyable...Graedon is too good a writer, it seems, to let an opportunity for linguistic play slip ... Despite all of its considerable linguistic sophistication, the novel offers a blunt message: Words are good. Reading is good. Books are good.”
“[A] literary thriller . . . . An ambitious debut, The Word Exchange is a cautionary tale with sophistication. . . . Unsurprisingly, Graedon’s own language is essential to the success of The Word Exchange—it’s erudite, ruminative, and complex.” —Meredith Turits, Bustle.com, April Editor’s Pick, April 21, 2014
“[I]f you’re like me and the notion of dictionary lovers as heroes and smarmy new-media guys as villains sounds great to you, then this is our book of the year.... This is the mainstream lit novel that truly is speculative fiction, science fiction, and just plain awesome fiction all at once.”
“Graedon’s novel is a delightful mash-up of noir, cyberpunk and novels about post-collegiate angst. Its treatment of language as a virus will remind science-fiction aficionados of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, while its exploration of the relationship between memory and identity recalls such films as Blade Runner, Memento and Inception. And its inventive use of language, as both its narrators begin to succumb to word flu, evokes the playful linguistic experimentation of Anthony Burgess.... It’s a brainy sort of book about what happens when we stop using our brains.”
—Cyrus Patell, The National
“[Graedon] knows how to ratchet up mystery. In [her] dystopian future, face-to-face interfacing is finished and even email is a fading memory; when the man working on the last-ever dictionary goes missing, his daughter sets out to find him and discovers murky anti-literate corporate forces and outposts of word-loving outlaws.”
“Can you imagine a future without books, newspapers or magazines? Alena Graedon has done just that—her debut novel conjures up a scarily plausible dystopian future, where print is dead and intuitive handheld devices are the only form of communication.”
—The Lady Magazine (UK)
“[A] crackling good thriller and a rumination on language. . . . Philosophically complex, The Word Exchange is a compelling and thought-provoking read. After reading this ambitiously inventive story about the intersection of language and technology, you’ll never look at your smartphone the same way.”
—Chatelaine Magazine (Canada)
“The Word Exchange . . . addresses a concern shared by many over the impact of the digital revolution. As the question is popularly expressed: Is the Internet making us stupid? . . . . The Diachronic Society have pills for the word flu, but the best antidote may be a return to old-fashioned, slow reading.”
—The Toronto Star
“The Word Exchange is hard to put down and harder not to think about.”
—The Ottawa Record
"Alena Graedon's spectacular debut is a story for our age of 'accelerated obsolescence.' A genuinely scary and funny mystery about linguistic slippage and disturbance, it's also a moving meditation on our sometimes comic, sometimes desperate struggles to speak, and to listen, and to mean something to one another. To borrow Graedon's own invention, The Word Exchange is 'Synchronic' -- a gorgeous genre mashup that offers readers the pleasures of noir, science fiction, romance and philosophy. It's an unforgettable joyride across the thin ice of language."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove
“Imaginative, layered, and highly original, The Word Exchange is an engagingly creepy story of technology gone wrong and a clever meditation on the enduring mysteries of language and love.”
—Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles
"Wow! This highly addictive future noir is also terrifyingly prescient. Set in a parallel New York filled with language viruses, pneumatic tubes, and heartbreak, Alena Graedon's book is luminous and haunting at every turn. I will never look at words in quite the same way—and neither will you."
—Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet