You’re right. Sorry about that. There are some pretty obscure words in the book, like “dulcarnon” and “panicles.” Partly, it’s because the narrators work together at a dictionary, so they come across words that the rest of us don’t, and sometimes they use them. It’s also, though, because one of the protagonists is reading a dictionary while she writes her account.
No, I mean, there are parts that are really hard to understand.
Oh, I see. I think you’re talking about the word flu? Some characters get infected with a virulent, life-threatening virus. It’s called word flu because an early symptom is aphasia, or difficulty communicating. And it’s especially frightening because it seems to be transmitted through speech, so people become really wary of interacting with each other.
It’s because of word flu, actually, that the character I just mentioned is reading the dictionary. Reading is one of the therapies that helps reverse the virus’s effects. So some of her diction and phrasing is slightly strange, too, because she’s still recovering.
But there are also some sections narrated by a character who gets progressively sicker over the course of the novel, so he becomes harder to understand. Those sections are relatively short, but they’re really crucial: they show in a way that nothing else could what gets lost when words’ meanings are corrupted. Language becomes its own best tool for conveying how dependent we are on this remarkable, collective resource that only works because we all share in the work of learning and using it.
So all the crazy words you threw in there—that wasn’t just to annoy people?
You have a really light touch, you know? No. Annoying people wasn’t what I was going for. But I did hope that it might make people think. Is that okay to say? I also hoped it would entertain them, and make them feel, and learn, and help them escape boring, Sunday-afternoon chores.
But I always find reading to be an even more transformational experience if it asks something of me. If it makes me engage, and create something, dialectically, that didn’t exist before. In that way, reading is like communication, or love, or experiencing other forms of art. It matters for what it is, and what it does to us. But also for what it makes us do and think and feel.
What I tried to do, with both the language and the story, was invite readers into the experience of the book in a way that would be as complete and as faithful to the world that had been created as possible, and to trust them to find their way.
Okay—Deep Thoughts. But moving on, you were sleeping with a thesaurus under your pillow, right?
I’m not going to lie: I love the thesaurus. I use it all the time. And I do like learning new terms that way. But I mostly use it to look up simple words, which I then replace with other simple words. I don’t always get as close to the essence of what I’m trying to say as I’d like. But sometimes it helps me get closer.
Most of the more unusual words didn’t come from a thesaurus, though. I also love dictionaries, which probably comes as no surprise, and I found a lot of them by flipping through different entries, or reading books about other people reading dictionaries, which sounds incredibly boring, but somehow isn’t.
You know you’re not the first person to write about a language virus, right, or a computer virus that spreads to people? You’re, like, at least the fifth or sixth person.
Thanks, I do know that now, yeah. Although I’m grateful that I didn’t when I started writing the book, approximately one hundred years ago. I’m not sure I would have finished it if I had, which is maybe a good argument for why writers shouldn’t talk too much about what they’re working on until it’s pretty far along.
How could you not know about those other books? Is it because you don’t read? Or I guess you just don’t read science fiction and fantasy.
Wait, I’m confused. Why would you think that? Science fiction and fantasy formed my earliest literary consciousness. Writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Ursula K. LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle, and Diana Wynne Jones made me fall in love with books and reading, and that’s what made me want to write.
I still love science fiction—the first time I read Philip K. Dick, I thought: “soul brother.” I love mystery novels, too, and giant tomes by dead Russians, and lots of other things, but I haven’t read all of any of those. I’m a slow reader, which is a great source of comfort to me: I will never run out of books to read.
But seriously—why a language virus?
The first spark of an idea that I had for The Word Exchange was of a person disappearing from both a dictionary building and its pages. And in fact, that’s how the book begins: a man goes missing, and the encyclopedia-like entry dedicated to him disappears from the digital edition of the dictionary, which means that words vanish along with him.
I knew that these disappearances would be connected somehow to technologies that have changed our relationship to language—and also, then, to information, consciousness, ourselves, and each other—and so quickly that it’s hard to know what the long-term consequences will be. For a few reasons, an infectious disease came to seem like the best way to represent it.
For one thing, it actualizes an idea that we’ve all become pretty familiar with: that sometimes when technologies are released too soon, whether for altruistic or profit-motivated reasons, the unintended effects can be really destructive. Medicines designed to control certain diseases might make people drop dead of others. Technologies meant to reduce our dependence on gasoline could end up being even more harmful for the environment.
Or devices that free up our lives in all sorts of ways, and that seem to make interacting faster, easier, and therefore better, might actually have a corrosive effect on communication, and on all the things it attends: intimacy, creativity, reflection. Because communication is social, those corrosive effects can be, or at least seem, infectious. It’s very hard to opt out—if we want to be socially integrated, we have to use the same technologies, modes of communicating, and language that the people around us use.
I was interested in the word flu, too, because it ends up functioning in a way that’s almost the inverse of how language is supposed to work. Instead of helping to get ideas across, it literally transmits confusion. Instead of connecting people with this incredible tool that only works because we all use it, it alienates and isolates them—both because the people who’ve caught it can’t be understood and because it makes people too afraid to communicate.
Finally, the virus resembles a computer virus in many ways, including its symptom of garbling text and words. And because our cultural transition from print to digital media is both a cause of, and an important precondition for, the virus’s development and transmission, the concept of word flu seemed to bring together a lot of the novel’s strands.
Just so you know, I stopped listening, like, four sentences into that explanation.
Yeah, I noticed there was some drool collecting on your chin.
Uh huh. Anyway—you know that the language virus is totally implausible, right?
Well, the book is set in a world where people have become so estranged from language that they can’t remember the meanings of words like “rotten” and “lever,” and they have to look them up just to get by in their daily lives. People download migraine and sleeping pill prescriptions, regularly interact with three-dimensional glyphs, and we’ve finally learned the identity of Banksy. So, basically, any discussion of plausibility has to be contextual.
That said, a lot of the things that I put into early drafts, and that I thought were either totally fantastical or a long, long way off, ended up becoming realities during the time that it took me to finish the novel. Things including migraine-soothing headbands, self-driving cars, and even Google Glass. The original version of one of the devices that I imagined for the book was similar enough to Google Glass that I decided to change it in revisions.
To create the two devices in the book, the Meme and the Nautilus, as well as what are actually two different language viruses, I worked closely with a few really brilliant scientists. A neuroscientist/MD/classically-trained composer helped me put together the Meme, and from there, I developed the first “virus,” which is really more a misfiring of the device. A cancer geneticist/MD/writer/sci-fi enthusiast helped me develop the Nautilus and the other language virus. I also got a lot of help from a genius software developer/writer.
The second virus—which is the true word flu—does take slightly more imaginative leaps, but it nonetheless rests on theories of genetics and evolution, and nearly every aspect of it follows from technologies that already exist or are in development: biological computers, computer files stored in DNA, people who can infect their bodies with computer viruses, computer viruses that can infect other computer viruses, contagious viruses that can spread over wifi signals, etc.
In earlier drafts, there was more about the virus. My editor and I decided to cut a lot of it, because it got pretty granular, and in the end, the details about the virus’s development and transmission aren’t as essential as what the word flu does, and what it represents.
But yes, I think the short answer to your question is that the viruses are really pretty plausible within the slightly implausible world of the novel.
Okay, I’m just going to have to stop you there, because I’m getting creeped out.
Oh, don’t worry. Word flu isn’t real. But if you do catch it, you can always read the book to find out how to get better.
ALENA GRAEDON was born in Durham, NC, and is a graduate of Carolina Friends School, Brown University, and Columbia University’s MFA program. She was Manager of Membership and Literary Awards at the PEN American Center before leaving to finish The Word Exchange, her first novel, with the help of fellowships at several artist colonies. Her writing has been translated into nine languages. She lives in Brooklyn.