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Rarely do a close a book I just finished and begin my review, but this dystopian account of the Word Flu that sweeps American in 2016 infected me with a (hopefully false) sense that my time to write this may be short. I put my iPad and iPhone down. I must write and let the words speak for themselves.
In some obvious ways, Alena Graedon’s premise is not unique. Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and recently Egger’s The Circle, have carried variations of the same warning – words and the stories we use them to tell – make us human. Mostly, it brought to mind Chris Van Allsburg’s The Wretched Stone. Graedon wraps her narrative in an entirely fresh and mildly gimmicky format. Following epigraphs by Samuel Johnson, Lewis Carrol and Jorge Luis Borges, the table of contents shows chapters titled every letter of the alphabet and divided into three sections – Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. The main narrator, Anana Johnson daughter of Douglas Johnson, is given the coded nickname Alice (think Through the Looking Glass) before her father disappears from his job while racing to finish NADEL (North American Dictionary of the English Language). The secondary narrator, Bart, (think Melville’s Bartleby) tells his portion of the story through journal entries he writes as he tries to stave off the infection.
The first two or three chapters had me doubting the infectious pull of the narrative, but I was quickly hooked. The pace is fast, the characters and the electronic devices on which they depend are contemporary, and the suggested techniques for reversing their damage are music to any English teacher’s ears – Cessation of contact with meaningless data, Reading, Conversation and Composition Therapy. Part mystery, part love letter to language, the back flap of the cover describes it as “a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology”. I would suggest this as the perfect summer read – preferably on a beach with no cell service.