By: Beatriz M. L. Caldas
What if the death of print became a reality? If books, newspapers, magazines and any other form of concrete knowledge were things of the past, what would you do? How would we live if language itself became obsolete or if iPads and iPhones could actually answer our questions even before we ask them? This is exactly how the world functions in Alena Graedon’s first novel The Word Exchange.
Born in Durham, North Carolina, Graedon is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s MFA program. She has worked at Columbia, Knopf, and the PEN American Centre.
Translated into eight languages, The Word Exchange is considered “a nervy, nerdy dystopic thriller” by The New York Times Book Review, and “a sobering look at how dependent we are on technology and how susceptible we are to the distortions of language” by The Washington Post.
The book talks about a future not too far from our present when the world has succumbed to handheld devices that basically do all the “hard work,” like feeding us at the first small sign of hunger or to hail us cabs while we are still leaving the building we work in. Anana Johnson, the main character, works with her father, Doug, to create a new North American Dictionary of the English Language. People have been forgetting the good old times when it was possible to buy print editions of books and magazines instead of relying on electronic devices for everything. For this reason, Doug feels the need to finish what may be the very last edition of the dictionary.
One day, Doug disappears, leaving only one clue behind: ALICE, a code he and Anana created to warn each other about danger. Together with her friend Bart, Anana starts an adventure through basements and subterranean passageways to try to find Doug and understand what happened to him. She and Bart need to run against time and the effects of the “word flu,” which causes language decay.
On March 5, we had the pleasure of meeting Alena Graedon in person at Guilford College’s Art Gallery in Hege Library. The audience was eager to hear Graedon’s reading of the book and her comments on the writing process. She herself was also glad to be at our school.
“I’m really honored and humbled to be with you all,” said Graedon before starting to read a few excerpts from her novel.
The chapters are each named with a letter from the alphabet in alphabetical order. Graedon read a small section from the first chapter, “A,” in Anana’s perspective and then moved to chapter two, “B,” to tell the story from Bart’s perspective. As Bart was infected with the “word flu,” Graedon dragged the audience to a different moment in the story when we could see the development of the disease and the effects it had on him. At last, she went back to Anana’s point of view to finish the reading with a powerful quote from Hegel.
The reading then gave space to a Q&A. Graedon showed a lot of excitement when hearing the interest of Guilford students about her book and the writing process itself. Most of the students were also curious about publishing a first novel and dealing with writer’s block.
One of the questions was about deciding which point of view she would write in.
“The main reason why I wanted to write in first person is because I really wanted to show what language does, what it is and how it connects people,” she said.
When asked about the chapters, Graedon was honest.
“Writing it in 26 chapters sort of messed me up,” she said. “Because, when I was trying to go back, revise and move things around, it was a lot harder, so I had to break things in strange places. Sometimes it’s really helpful to have a container into which to pour your narrative.”
At the end, she confessed to the audience that at times she would fear failure.
“I had no idea if anybody else besides my mom would ever read it,” she said. “(But) that was also liberating because I could do insane things like having a lot of stuff about Hegel. Even if nobody else reads it, I thought, at least I’m writing the book as I imagine it should be.
“The best thing about (writing a book) is that you go into a process of discovery, but that’s also really hard. You ask yourself ‘what will happen when I’m done?’ So writing is the best thing that I do and the hardest thing as well.”
After answering every question, Graedon stayed longer to talk to everyone who was eager to know more about her work and to give autographs for those who had bought The Word Exchange from Guilford’s bookstore.
If you didn’t have the chance to meet this amazing New York Times bestselling author and would love to give her novel a try, just go by the bookstore in the basement of Founders Hall.
The Greenleaf Review hopes you enjoy your ride through a wordless world.