The Da Vinci Code is so very, very broken; Book Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Like the previous Robert Langdon novels, this one takes place in a short period of time in a major world capitol. This time it's Washington D.C., and since Langdon's already solved mysteries based around The Illuminati and The Templars, there's only one top-tier secret society left: The Masons. With its rich Masonic history, its symbol-laden art and architecture, and a reputation for being the source of intrigue, scandal, and secrets, Washington D.C. seems a worthy successor to Rome and Paris. With a solid setting and centuries of Masonic myth and fear mongering to work with, Brown had all the pieces in place to put together a solid pulp adventure. It's almost impressive how badly he fumbles the ball.

The plot Langdon finds himself sucked into this time involves rescuing an old friend (named Solomon -- really) from the fiendish hands of a Mason-inspired mad man who's bent on uncovering a secret buried treasure the city's Masonic founders (including Washington, Franklin, and all your other Revolutionary favs) placed somewhere in the city. Is there a treasure buried beneath the city in some secret vault? Maybe it's all a metaphor. Or is it? Yes it is a metaphor, but in a real way. It's a symbol wrapped in an enigma, buried under a mound of bullshit. The important fact is that a giant bald eunuch with full body Masonic tattoos named Mal'akh is hell-bent on using his massive fortune and ruthless homicidal rage to find this Ancient Mystery/Lost Symbol/Magic Word because if he does, then he'll have untold power. Mal'akh, with his insane goals and seemingly limitless wealth is a solid pulp villain, as ridiculous but potentially interesting as Fu Manchu.

The failure is all in the execution. Dan Brown's narrative has the requisite twists and turns, but they're all either very obvious (like the truth about Mal'akh) or very forced. For example, one of the book's big action sequences takes place in a giant, dark room. Why is this huge room utterly dark? So Brown can have a dramatic chase there. It makes no sense that it's dark – given the room's purpose and the people who set it up, stringing some lights in there would have been trivial, made perfect sense, and probably been a legal requirement. Not lighting the room serves no one but Brown, and it's just deadly obvious. Again and again, decisions in this book are made not because they're logical, but because they need to set up some set piece or plot twist. It's lazy, obvious plotting, and given the flatness of the prose and the dryness of the dialogue, plot was the only thing Brown had going for him.

Brown seems to sense that his plot needs some spicing up. He constantly, constantly inserts artificial tension builders that serve only to string the reader along. Time and again Langdon or one of the other characters will see something or realize the solution to a cryptic puzzle. Brown shows their surprise or excitement, their “how did I not see it before” moment. But we, the readers, are left out of synch with the characters. This can be a useful dramatic trope in writing, but like the boy who cried wolf, Brown uses it to excess. He hides simple facts from us for no reason, and when the reveal comes a few pages or chapters later, disappointment follows. “Oh, it mean the sub-basement,” or “Oh, he's in the botanical gardens,” or “Oh, his fly was unzipped.” All the fuss over minutiae distracts the reader and undercuts the more substantial revelatory moments when they do come.

These micro problems also manifest themselves as macro deficiencies for the book as a whole. We're told repeatedly, by both the mad man and the Masons, that the big secret everyone's after will change the world. It will rock humanity. The secret must be kept! It's such a big deal, that for some weird reason the CIA is involved, flying around DC with a black helicopter and generally being pushy. With all this hoopla, Brown's setting himself up for failure, and for once his plan succeeds: he fails miserably. The book's three big revelations all fall flat. One is predictable. The second, CIA related one is underwhelming although vaguely plausible, I guess. The final one is secret of the titular Lost Symbol. It's laughable. If it were true (and it could be) and you told anyone about it, they'd think, “oh, OK, that's not surprising I guess.” Indeed, there's probably a fair portion of this country who would be surprised if it weren't true. Either way, it's nothing approaching world changing.

There's also something weird going on in this novel. Brown has included a lot of material, especially in the last few chapters of the book, about an a ridiculous pseudoscience called noetics. Noetics plays no role at all in the plot. There's a bit in the beginning about it, but it has no effect on the action nor any bearing on the Masonic secrets. After the book's plot comes to its finale, we get this long sequence evoking the power of the human mind and quantum mechanics. Brown even cites real world Web sites from people who promote this noetic nonsense. It's right out of The Secret, really, and I can't help but feel Brown is using his best seller status to cram this crap down his reader's throats. I'm sure there will be some – the same sorts who bought into the pseudo-history of The Da Vinci Code – who will think it's all real. Just one more reason – if you needed one – to not buy this overwrought, under-written clunker.

Full disclosure: At the time, when it was still just some book and not THE DA VINCI CODE, I recommended that mega-selling novel to several people. I read it front to back one rainy Sunday afternoon, and had a fine time. For me it was a pulp thriller, a breakneck-paced, over-the-top tale that layered on the Templars, secret societies and hidden codes that are classic components of any good action tale. It was a novel in the grand tradition of Doc Savage and The Shadow – flatly written, out of control, race car pace and set in a larger-than-life world.

The fact that people began to take the historical plot devices from this novel seriously came as quite a surprise. And so, like so many others, The Da Vinci Code phenomenon turned the whole thing sour for me.

Now here comes the much-anticipated sequel, Dan Brown's first new novel in years: The Lost Symbol. I went into it striving to reacquire those pre-phenomenon eyes, to judge the novel just on its own terms. And you know what? It's a pretty terrible book judged on its own. Also, judged by the standard of the surrounding phenomenon, it's still a pretty terrible book.

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