Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol

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Summary: Dan Brown's new novel is one of the most anticipated books in a while, by both fans and detractrors. Will Dan Brown knock another out of the park, says the first camp, while the latter pour over it looking for improper English and stilted dialogue. Which camp is best satisfied? I'm going to have to say...both.

Monday, 21 September 2009

(01:29:06 CDT)

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol

I did not hate The Da Vinci Code. I surely made fun of it and was quite frustrated by the sheer volume of sales it generated despite thouroughly mixed reviews; but I did not hate it. It had it's place. Plus, on a mechanics side, it is interesting to point out that it is two books in one. The first book is a desperate race through a Paris night while the second book is a more esoteric discussion of hundreds of symbols and phrases and paintings and puzzles and the great secret they contained. The book was practically designed to be controversial, and it was, and this generated tons of sales and a cottage industry of respondants trying to bash or back-up Brown's novel. The cry of "It's a good book, but it's not TRUE" is still being repeated on message boards and chats. I myself heard someone say it only a couple of weeks ago. I would question whether it is really a good book. On a good day, I would cut off my assessment at "fair", while most other, I would lean over to the "poor" side of the equation, but it keeps your interest. Hate it or love it, you are are least curious to see what point it all has. It's just so many of its little clever hooks are too clever, a heady mixture of symbolism and comparative religion having taint of snark and mild disengenuity; and it all comes across as better suited to a group of drunken philosophy majors hanging out one night, rather than a professor fleeing killers while spending hours talking about what the Bible really means.

It might seem strange that someone like me, who did not really favor the novel, would have pre-ordered the follow-up. There is one good reason for this. Whether it was piss-poor literature or a stark work of genius, The Da Vinci Code was a literary milestone. Proof, of a sort, that books could still sell in our post-literate world. Proof that books could even be discussed, debated, responded to, hated, and felt passionately about. As a vessel, it might have been lacking, but it mattered, and that's pretty rare in bookland (in the past decade, the only other two books to achieve this level of passion have been the Young Adult series—Harry Potter and Twilight—becoming house-hold names as well as founts of furious debate and websites, and yes, I have both of those series as well).

The follow-up, by the way, is The Lost Symbol, and I suppose it is time that I talk about it since this post does not have anything really to do with "The Code. Well, one thing. On the cover of The Da Vinci Code there was a little hidden message that ended up pointing people to the geographical coordinates of Kryptos, a statue in code near the CIA in Washington DC. Then, a few years ago (2006?), a note came through while I worked at a bookstore that the new novel was going to be called Solomon's Key. At the time, this was the pre-movie height of fascination with Dan Brown so it really was the perfect time to make such an announcment. "You think the book is better? You should pre-order the next thrilling page turner NOW!". It just turned out to be a bit of an early stretch probably centered around the scantest of outlines. The novel does involve a man named Peter Solomon, and there is a key, of sorts, being searched for (more than one, in different meanings of the term), so it is possible that Solomon's Key was an intended original title. Interviews I have read more recently imply, though, that the book was a ways off then, and so that was likely a machination of marketing rather than an actually prediction of publication.

The book is about a combination of two things: Washington, D.C.'s architecture and art and the secrets of Freemasons. There is also a bit of "Noetic science" tossed into the mix. Human potential. Tattoos. Old secrets and government agents. Brown actually comes down heavily on the sympathetic side of the Freemason issue, which may or may not strike you as odd after his attack on organizations from the latter two (organization, both times it was the Catholic Church) and the art referenced is more varied with Brown avoiding some of (and only some of) his "This symbol must mean this" style argument from his previous two. These two things make for a slightly different mix. Robert Langdon, who returns as one of the central characters, is a tad more skeptical and withdrawn. He actually debates things a little but more, and his strings of terms have shortened(still long, though, and towards the end, another character makes up for it, alas). It is a welcome change, makes the character a tad more human.

Dan Brown's previous readers, though, cannot help to notice a certain similarity of pattern. Langdon's mild personal growth aside, his old tricks are well in force. The reader is reading a collection of tepidly written speeches about the meaning of art and symbols (almost always delivered in a faux Socratic style, with the teacher saying something and the student going "You are so right, sir!", over and over again, with any digression from this mix only made in an obvious attempt to lead the reader to the teacher's next great point) mixed together with some actually intense moments with life and liberty on the line. You have a strangely skinned man running around a well known city doing bad deeds while a mixture of authorities and old friends that know more than they readily admit run around trying to capture and/or assist Langdon (usually both depending on the time of the novel). The good professor, for his part, spends most of the time harried while a) looking at his Mickey Mouse (almost makes me wonder if this violates fair use of the name, the number of times the words "Mickey" and "Mouse" show up together in this novel) watch, b) dealing with his fear of heights and enclosed spaces, and/or c) delivering those tepid lectures about a gazillion minor details hidden in the architecture around him. He tends to be about fifteen seconds in front of the authorities, who use the absolute best tracking equipment to try and find a man whose primary crime tends to be having his name mentioned in front of the authorities. Said authorities, it must be noted, rarely discuss what they really want from Langdon. They make up for it by ignoring all sorts of protocols and personal ethics in their search for a guy whose primary power is to discuss the history behind "The Mona Lisa" (and, in cases like his description of the disembodied hand in "The Last Supper", arguably getting it wrong).

It is the dual nature of the novel that leads to it's biggest flaw, or its twin flaws as they are both part of the same pulse-pounding parent. As interesting as the deep mysteries of the ancients are, Dan Brown knows his averager reader is not going to read a 400-page novel that discusses murky details and questionable science. He interlaces an extremely cut down version of these discussions (while blithely ignorirng just how murky and questionable some of the facts he pulls to the surface are) with a plot designed to drive the reader forward. You read about Thomas Jefferson's signature and how many curves it have, but you care about whether or not some woman is bleeding to death on a mad man's altar. The flaw in this is two fold (the aforementioned twins). After the pulse is no longer pounding, the reader is sort of left to drift in an extended and narratively specious denounement about what it all meant (something like 10% of the novel occurs after its "ending", mind you, by which I mean the story stops about 50 pages before Dan Brown stopped writing, a last minute reprieve for all the little thoughts he had that would have made no sense in a larger context, it's a failure to let his MacGuffin lie in a dissatisfied jumble and it does not work). Secondly, Brown's preferred method to keep the pulse up is to cut out of a chapter right after the character receives some revelation, but before he feels like sharing it with the rest of the world. There are a number of chapters (I would guess 20-30, at least, since the chapters are all short) that end with something like this: "Robert looks down at the scroll, and then realizes the answer has been in front of him the whole time!", end chapter. The next chapter, by the way, is about someone else. The chapter after that is about Langdon, but not about what he has found out. It will eventually come out, and sometimes it is almost worth it, but after this trick is played more than a few times, it feels aggravatingly manipulative.

Oh, and while there are some neat plot-twists (one of my favorite being how imaginatively pragmatic one of the big issues is), one of the biggest is so telegraphed that it was pretty pointless to do it that way. A bit of dramatic irony is one thing, but Brown wanted to push all sorts of clues in the readers' collective face and it takes about four seconds to see what he is up to and then to be annoyed for the next 400 pages as he pretends he is still doing it properly. It is like a kid showing you there is nothing up his sleeve, and then giggling for thirty-minutes before showing you the card that you saw him put there before he ever made the claim.

With these complaints aside, the good things are there. It will probably keep your attention. There are a few really interesting discussions about the founding fathers and the art and architecture dedicated to them (one flaw is that many of the paintings and buildings described came after the people they are about, but are discussed almost in terms of collusion with their subjects). The giant dark room with its little cube is kind of neat. A few other things like that. The prose is better even if the dialogue is about the same. And, frankly, the subject matter is a lot more interesting, to me. Hearing about the mathematical formula underlying the Washington Monument (and the history of several major lodges and Masonic Temples in DC) is much more curiousity piquing than whether or not some fourteenth century artist was complaining about the church by three black bars in the upperleft corner of some painting.

Of course, curiousity stimulating or not, buying that Masons had the Wingding font installed on their 19th century stone carving tools was a bit hard to bear. Making that fact immensely important to the latter half of the book just made me sad. I nearly stopped reading it. (And yes, I am being partially facetious, but if you do read it, you'll see what I mean).

More complaints than bonuses, above, so it might surprise you to see me give it an Eh. Right in the middle. It fails in many ways (some of which would be solved if there were no previous Robert Langdon novels to copy from so heavily) but manages to do exactly what it sets out to do. It excites, it speculates, it describes. Then it preaches and preaches and preaches. Seriously. Preaches. Not much until the end, but once you get there, you'll know what I mean.

Oh, one caveat. Skip the hardcover. Not only is there a chance that a illustrated collector's edition is coming out (with better graphics and images and scenes in photographs to illustrate what he is describing) but it's not really worth the whopping $30 they are asking for it (presumably since they knew every store would have it at about 20-30% off, putting it about normal price for a hardcover). Get it from your library, get the $10 Kindle Edition, or wait for the paperback. It's not a book you are going to want to have a well bound hardcover of, I would say.

Si Vales, Valeo


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