The Word (Transit Lounge 2018) is the first book I’ve read by author William Lane, although he has published three previous novels and is also a literary critic specialising in the work of Christina Stead. This interest in words and what they mean becomes the subject of this rather strange but charming story of Kenric, an eccentric advertising executive whose life becomes something else altogether.
The story opens with Kenric and his wife Janis watching television. Janis is knitting, and the knitting instructions are inserted into the text almost like some form of abstract poetry. Kenric, meanwhile, is thinking about words. He makes his living thinking about words, choosing the exact and perfect words to express an idea or a concept about whatever product he is marketing, and to persuade the consumer to invest in that idea by making a purchase. He is remarkably successful at what he does, but the company he works for, The Firm, appears to be moving in a new direction. Janis works at The Foundation, and the book is peppered with similar organisations such as The Message.
When Kenric’s life begins to unravel – he acquires a new secretary, he develops a crush on a waitress, he realises his marriage is ‘empty and unhappy’ – he decides to resign, and to abandon his professional and personal life and start up a community called The Word, bringing together people who are similarly interested in language and equally opposed to the misuse of words.
The Word has its critics. It is labelled a cult, and Kenric a guru. The collection of its members come and go over time, never quite managing to collectively believe in the same ideals, or even to agree on the basic fundamental rules of the group’s operation. They initially live in a warehouse, and then move between two beach houses fortuitously available to various members. With everyone from ex-ashram hippies to criminals to lonely hearts, the group muddles along studying from dictionaries, completing crosswords, critiquing language, and reassuring everyone – including themselves – that the group is PHILOSOPHICAL not THEOLOGICAL.
I struggled with this book but I suspect it will appeal to people who love to dissect words – their origins, their meanings, the ways in which they can hurt and mislead and devour and arm. It is a satire, and there are some very funny, bright moments which made me laugh. There is a large cast of humorous and oddball characters. I think that the book includes messages about consumerism and advertising, about relationships, about loners and outsiders, about team-building and sects and lies and memories; about the search for happiness and those we choose to follow in its pursuit.