Language in Ruins: Exploring the Dystopian Cautionary Tale with Alena Graedon

Posted by March 13th, 2014


Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

The death of print is a fear that comes hand in hand with the rapid technological developments of our digital age, but in Alena Graedon’s THE WORD EXCHANGE, it has become reality. She presents a not too far-off future where over-reliance on smart digital devices impairs our ability to communicate—even think. What goes into imagining a world in which technology inhibits our thought processes? How about our speech patterns? We talk to Alena about THE WORD EXCHANGE’s “language in ruins.”


NG: THE WORD EXCHANGE is based in the recent future—and yet the death of print and the onslaught of sixth-sense digital technology have already tremendously changed the way people live. You had to coin new words and concepts that only exist in the futuristic sci-fi world of the book and think through how a language virus would change people’s speaking and thought patterns. Can you talk about that process of creating language in a novel about language?

AG: Language is really at the center of the book, you’re absolutely right. In some sense, it’s the hero of the story. Our relationship to language has been profoundly changed by technology, and I’ve been fascinated by the implications of inviting lots of beautiful, blinking machines into our lives, and of gradually relinquishing functionalities to them that we once viewed as fundamental to ourselves—decision-making, creating and interpreting things, communicating. Setting the book in the near future helped me explore what might happen when these processes have advanced just slightly, and how things could go really wrong.

A lot of the decisions I made in writing the book came from its focus on language. For instance, I always knew that lexicographers would tell the story. Dictionary-makers are especially attuned to words—to their diachronic evolutions over time, as well as to synchronic snapshots of what our living language means at any given moment. It was also interesting to have lexicographer protagonists because the publishing industry is changing so quickly, and the shift from print to a more fragile, ephemeral digital medium leaves us vulnerable to certain losses and threats. In the book, these include the hijacking and corruption of language, and also a disease, “word flu,” which makes communication nearly impossible, increasingly isolating and alienating its victims.

Because the novel is about a threat to language (and maybe also, then, to individual and collective consciousness), another decision I made was to show the process of linguistic degradation over the course of the book—to animate the effects of word flu over time. Language functions as its own most powerful tool for demonstrating the significance of its loss. Nothing illustrates quite as eloquently as words themselves the effects that the erosion of their meanings can have.

word exchangeBut absolutely, it was a challenge writing a book about words when the words in it are under assault. During the six years that I spent on the novel, constructing and deconstructing the neologisms and aphasia, I worked to offer a strong sense of the characters’ estrangement while preserving the meaning and momentum of the story.

And at the end of the book, words prove to be not only a potential toxin, but also a tonic. Certain linguistic interactions, like writing and reading, turn out to be remedies for word flu.

NG: The novel tackles big issues: communication in an age of “accelerated obsolescence,” the relationship between language and thought, and the loss of free will in a highly digitized world. Why was Anana’s personal story the best way to tell this (very scary) cautionary tale?

AG: Anana has a host of nicknames and aliases: Apple, Aps, Pin, Needle, Nins, Nans, Ana, A, and, as the story develops, Alice. This big bouquet of sobriquets suggests that the people in her life see her in lots of different ways. Partly, they’re projecting their own expectations onto her—but that’s probably because she doesn’t have a very clear sense of herself at the beginning of the book. And her fragmented identity is largely due to her heavy dependence on technology, which has slowly eroded her capacity for reflection, autonomy, connection, and self-determination.

Her hydra personhood is also, though, partly because she exists in a lot of worlds. She’s the assistant to the North American Dictionary of the English Language’s Chief Editor, who also happens to be her father. And while she likes her job, she also thinks of it as provisional, and of herself as kind of an outsider. Her insider-outsider status made me very interested in her as a narrator for this story, especially because it extends to her increasingly ambivalent relationship to technology.

She starts off as an enthusiastic user of the Meme device available in this near-future world, and she teases her father for his concerns about them. But over time, her stance changes dramatically, and in the process, she also changes, coming more into her own, and very literally finding her voice.

Her capacity for self-awareness and “becoming,” to use a Hegelian idea, also made her a really compelling heroine to me, because although the novel presents some cautionary messages, it’s very hopeful in the end, and I think that Anana’s transformation shows how possible and redemptive change can potentially be.

NG: The events of the book are mainly filtered through the written accounts of the two point-of-view characters: Bart’s journal and Anana’s therapeutic personal history. This is interesting, because writing words down is so rare in the world of THE WORD EXCHANGE. Why did you choose that narrative mode?

AG: In some sense, these two different accounts, Bart’s journal entries and Anana’s narration, are an exchange—they’re in a sort of antiphonal dialogue, and their voices really couldn’t exist independently of one another. Bart’s entries record the novel’s events as they happen. Over the course of the book, as he gets progressively sicker from word flu, they also offer firsthand, “primary-source” evidence of its corrosive effects. Anana’s narration is almost the inverse; she’s telling the story retrospectively, and instead of making her ill, language actually helps her get well.

As you’ve alluded, recording this history is part of a course of treatment for Anana. In a sense, it actualizes a Joan Didion aphorism that I’ve always loved: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Narratives can be salvational—they help us organize chaos, give shape to traumatic experiences, and potentially a way out of them, and they provide frames for subjective experiences and thoughts, ways to share them. Sometimes, they can also save the people who read them. Anana is trying to heal herself, but she’s also trying to mend something bigger, if she can, by telling a story that might not otherwise be told.

NG: Finally, do you consult a paper dictionary when you write?

AG: I do have a few dictionaries, and in fact it was one of them that gave me the first kernel of the idea for THE WORD EXCHANGE. During my last semester of college, my house burned down. I lost all my books, including a lot of dictionaries, and as a graduation present, my parents gave me the Oxford American Dictionary.

I took it with me to an artist colony the next spring—I planned to use its line drawings in a visual art project. While I was flipping through, I was surprised to see encyclopedia-like entries for some notable people. And I had a strange flash: what if one of those entries disappeared? What would the story behind that be? THE WORD EXCHANGE starts with just such an event: the entry for Douglas Johnson, Anana’s father, vanishes from the digital edition of the dictionary. That’s Anana’s first clue that something’s not right.

When I was writing the book, I did consult paper dictionaries. But I also used digital ones, including the incomparable Oxford English Dictionary. And none of its entries have disappeared yet that I can tell.


About Alena Graedon: 

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. 

Visit Alena’s Facebook page.

Want to keep talking about dystopian and postapocalyptic lit? Join the Book Country discussion “Brown, grey, brown, grey: post-apocalyptic literature and you.” 

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