Born in Durham, NC. Education: Graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's M.F.A. program.
Writer. Formerly manager of membership and literary awards at the PEN American Center, New York, NY.
- The Word Exchange (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2014.
Nonfiction writing has appeared in Believer magazine.
Alena Graedon is a Brooklyn-based writer. A graduate of the Carolina Friends School, an independent, coeducational Quaker school located in Graedon's hometown of Durham, North Carolina, Graedon later studied at Brown University and in Columbia University's master of fine arts program. Graedon worked as the manager of membership and literary awards at the PEN American Center before publishing her first novel, The Word Exchange, in 2014. Graedon's timely exercise in Borgesian phantasmagoria has already been translated into eight different languages. The novel--a thriller knitted with somber meditations on language in a future dominated by digital technologies--is a deeply personal work for Graedon. Graedon imbues the novel with her own ambivalence about digital media. Though she is not luddite enough to forgo smartphones, social media, or the Internet, Graedon is aware of our cultural dependence on technology; digital tools now communicate in our stead and nourish us with our information and entertainment. In an interview with Claire Luchette for Bustle, Graedon reflected on the reasons for her digital skepticism. She noted: "I'm part of the last generation to use print media. Over the course of my life, our relationship to information and language has completely changed, and from the beginning, I've been a little ambivalent about the shift to digital, probably at least in part because I learned early on how vulnerable electronic media can be." At the heart of The Word Exchange is a deep-seated trepidation about the relevance of books in the digital age. Graedon owns an e-reader but is clearly concerned about the potential extinction of the book.
Her bibliophilia was, as she explained in an interview with Jay A. Fernandez for the Word and Film Web site, ingrained early. She told Fernandez: "My love of language really started with a love of books. My grandfather was a rare and used book dealer. He and my grandmother lived down the street when I was growing up, and both their house and ours were full of his collection. In my family, books were the only really sacred objects. But even though we treated books with reverence and respect, I was also always taught that they weren't only objects--that they were meant to be read and shared." Graedon's debut novel was completed with the assistance of fellowships from a number of artist colonies, including the Jantel Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Graedon's nonfiction has appeared in Believer magazine.
The Word Exchange is set in a hypothetical near future in which the printed word has been driven to extinction. Bookstores, newspapers, libraries, and magazines have vanished from Graedon's future, replaced by handheld devices called Memes. Memes are the logical conclusion of the contemporary smartphone, enabling communication and facilitating any possible human whim. The small devices are so intuitive that they can hail cabs for workers before they even leave their offices, order food for their owners even before they know they are hungry, do their taxes, and interface with their friends and family in their place. Memes have, for most of humanity, become indispensable crutches. Their nearly magical properties have made them into the functional appendages of a tech-steeped human species. The Meme has generated all manner of ancillary products to bolster and augment its native functions, including an online "Word Exchange." The Word Exchange provides Meme users with immediate access to the definitions, synonyms, and antonyms of any word they want, and it can supply them with words when they are in conversation with others. While some technophobes darkly warn that the Word Exchange is degrading Meme users's abilities to communicate, their warnings go largely unheeded in a world wholly dependent on the Meme. Anana Johnson, like much of her society, is unworried by the Meme's dominance, even though her father, Doug--a Meme skeptic who dimly recalls a time before the product's arrival--is working on the final edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. When he goes missing, having left an ominous note for Anana, she begins a frantic search, which ends up taking her through mouldering libraries, sinister corporate boardrooms, and the clandestine meetings of the elusive "Diachronic Society." Anana begins to understand that Meme users are menaced by a plague designed for corporate profiteering. Humans are being afflicted with an illness that robs them of any knowledge of words. Deprived of the ability to communicate, they are forced to pay for every word they utter. Communication itself ends up being manipulated and monetized in The Word Exchange, and the fabric of humanity is frayed by a plague of gibberish. Anana must find the instigator of this intellectual pandemic if she is to recover her lost father and protect herself from the fast-spreading "word flu." A thriller whose themes would have been warmly received by either Jorge Luis Borges or Lewis Carroll, The Word Exchange insists readers think critically about how digital media is controlled and how language could be usurped by technology.
Reviewers almost universally commended Graedon for crafting a suspenseful and thoughtful dystopia, although there was a divergence of opinion regarding, fittingly enough, the author's use of language. Slate reviewer Rebecca Onion opined: "Much of Graedon's book is written in the voices of characters that have begun to suffer from aphasia. The disease replaces random words with nonsense, and Graedon's language is sparklingly inventive." In sharp contrast, Tim Gebhart critiqued Graedon for her verbosity and fondness for linguistic fireworks. In his Seattle Post-Intelligencer review, Gebhart wrote: "Because many of the characters are philologists, there is a tendency toward five-dollar words. ... In addition, extensive core information is presented by way of summary in an op-ed written by the Diachronic Society and a letter to Anana from Doug. Whether either is reasonable or a distraction will depend on the individual reader." Similarly, Whitney Matusiak, who penned her review of The Word Exchange for the Editor's Association of Canada Web site, noted: "While Graedon uses her deft language skills to bolster fear and encourage empathy for a digital age gone off the rails, her protagonists, antagonists, and every unnecessary person in between contribute to an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia." If there was a divergence of opinion about Graedon's self-consciously mannered writing, reviewers were in agreement about her thematic and intellectual accomplishments. A reviewer writing in Kirkus Reviews concluded a favorable review of The Word Exchange by calling the novel a "wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning."
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
- Booklist, March 1, 2014, Keir Graff, review of The Word Exchange, p. 23.
- Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2014, review of The Word Exchange.
- New York Times, May 2, 2014, Liesl Schillinger, review of The Word Exchange.
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 2014, Tim Gebhart, review of The Word Exchange.
- Toronto Star, April 11, 2014, Alex Good, review of The Word Exchange.
- Bustle, http://www.bustle.com/ (April 24, 2014), Claire Luchette, author interview.
- Editor's Association of Canada Web site, http://eactorontoblog.com/ (August 22, 2014), Whitney Matusiak, review of The Word Exchange.
- LA Splash, http://www.lasplash.com/ (September 15, 2014), Andrew DeCanniere, author interview.
- Publishers Weekly Online, http://www.publishersweekly.com/ (April 7, 2014), Ashley Strosnider, author interview.
- Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (August 22, 2014), author profile.
- Slate, http://www.slate.com/ (April 9, 2014), Rebecca Onion, review of The Word Exchange.
- Tor, http://www.tor.com/ (May 5, 2014), Ryan Britt, review of The Word Exchange.
- Word and Film, http://www.wordandfilm.com/ (April 10, 2014), Jay A. Fernandez, author interview.*