Kenric is an executive at The Firm, a Sydney advertising company. He has a knack for branding products and he “knows what draws consumers to words. He knows the magic of words … their hidden life”.
Kenric feels out of place among the lascivious coked-up buffoons at The Firm, but he connects with new secretary Maria, who inspires him to leave his job and unhappy marriage and establish an alternative community in a disused meat-packing plant in Western Sydney’s Mount Druitt. There, Kenric founds a movement, The Word. It is built on his philosophy that reality is constructed by language, thereby making words all-powerful. Mistaking Kenric for a cult leader, an ensemble of academic dropouts, aspiring professionals and New-Age burnouts flock to The Word to experiment with etymology, semiotics, philosophy and polyamory.
The Word is William Lane’s fourth novel and it returns to his frequent mode: surrealist satire of bourgeois vanities. This is a romp through the spiritual vacuum at the heart of late-capitalist culture – the religions, philosophies and New-Age quackeries that fill it, and our tendency to put faith in bad ideas and people with persuasive pitch. It highlights the similarities between theology and marketing; how self-delusion makes us all prey to confidence men and hucksters. At least, that’s the intent.
In a story about the subtle power of language, Lane has taken great joy in flexing his vocabulary and deep knowledge of wordcraft. Take this description of a beachhouse nestled below the dunes of Sydney’s northern suburbs: “Impermanence permeated the house … the sandstone floor might have been the base of the coast itself.” But is capricious joy in verbal pyrotechnics enough to carry a satire of urbane excess? Regrettably, no.
The narrative is confoundingly erratic, with manic characters almost talking over each other in a rush to set up zany set pieces and escalate absurdist situations. It’s satirical in an old-fashioned, madcap sort of way – in conception and delivery, Lane channels Spike Milligan, if Milligan now resides in a hell without line editors.
With threadbare action and listless pacing, The Word is not plot-driven, nor, despite reams of dialogue, is it really character-driven. It walks, more or less, towards its conclusion, leaving the reader feeling as if they’ve been stuck at an interminable dinner party and looking forward to the taxi home. ZC
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "William Lane, The Word". Subscribe here.