Max Barry posits that something even more powerful and immediate can be achieved than that which we see in the edited Derren Brown TV shows, that there are words and phrases that can control us all, different ones depending on our ‘personality segment’, and that an organisation exists of people who train in and wield this power.
Emily Ruff, a vagrant getting by on small con-jobs and sleight-of-hand tricks is recruited for training and becomes embroiled in a something even darker, their idea that there are ‘barewords’, ur-words in some primal proto-language that bypass the cortex and can control anybody, instantly and completely.
Barry presents what is both a superb, engaging, white-knuckle thriller and also an exploration of language and control. Through fragments from media stories and message board discussions between chapters he draws parallels between the blunt-force over-riding control of these ‘magic’ words and the more subtle and pervasive and more real - and hence more frightening - power of media manipulation. The book also touches on the philosophical idea of how much language creates reality by affecting our perception of it, as well as motifs of trust and loyalty and power.
This is a dark book - I haven’t given it the horror tag for nothing - but, as always with Max Barry, it is also deeply humanistic and is threaded through with real humour. Read it and, if you haven’t already, read Jennifer government too, for good measure.