Tuesday, December 1, 2009

[Book Review] The Lost Symbol

A book by Dan Brown

This is the fourth book of Brown’s that I’ve read. Like many, I started with The Da Vinci Code, after which I went back and read Digital Fortress and Angels & Demons. And they all follow pretty much the same pattern:

  • Enter the bad guy, intent on doing bad stuff and reveling in how glorious it is to be bad (or, in his mind, good).
  • Somebody dies, loses body parts, or is otherwise in mortal peril
  • Enter Robert Langdon, tweed-wearing Harvard professor of symbology and all-around genius.
  • Langdon is suddenly and mysteriously brought to some strange and mysterious place that average folks may or may not know about, but never get to really explore and wouldn’t understand if they did.
  • Langdon (and his female cohort) race against time to unravel a mystery involving ancient (or modern) symbolism, delving into all sorts of dark places, lost tombs, hidden alcoves, and famous buildings hiding secrets in plain sight.
  • Langdon pauses occasionally to give lectures on symbolism, western world history, cryptography, linguistics, religion, great western thinkers, secret societies and the ignorance of the masses as involves any of the above.
  • The bad guy reveals himself and Langdon is clubbed, drugged, trussed up and otherwise assaulted, as is his femme fatale.
  • Cleverly deducing the true meaning of the previously-misunderstood symbols, Langdon thwarts the bad guy, saves the damsel and, sometimes, the world.
  • Being an academic and ascetic, Langdon does not get the phone number of the damsel or offer to buy her dinner in Paris, Rome, Geneva, Washington D.C. or any of the other cities where his adventures are set, but instead goes home and reads a book.
  • The End

It’s formulaic, but that’s not automatically bad. Much if not most of Shakespeare’s work can be (and certainly has been) broken down into formulas as well, and people still read, perform and enjoy his work 400 years later. The quality of the story has a lot more to do with the strength of the narrative, the pace, the characterization, the themes and all of the other elements that make up an entertaining story. And, in Brown’s case, it has a lot to do with how thorough his research was and how crafty he is at creating a complex skein of twisted threads that he then untwists through the eyes of poor oft-pummeled but never-loved Professor Langdon.

In this case, Brown was every bit as crafty as he was in his prior two works. This time he explores the hidden mysteries of the Freemason society and the impact they had on the design and structures of Washington D.C., the which is often fodder for internet conspiracy theorists. The setting is a much smaller area than in the last novel, in that it sticks pretty much just to a handful of buildings in the immediate downtown D.C. area, with only a couple of exceptions – unlike the Da Vinci code which had Langdon travel all over Paris and London both, as well as visiting Geneva. The Lost Symbol is more like Angels and Demons in that regard, which took place almost entirely in and around Vatican City in Rome.

Langdon is the same brilliant cyborg lecturer as always, his eidetic memory giving him access to encyclopedias worth of obscure knowledge and his sharp mind allowing him to make observations and connections that would otherwise be missed. We also get a much better insight into the mind of the “bad guy” in this book, though Brown tries so hard to hold onto the character’s secrets that we lose any opportunity of really feeling like we know him, since whatever the hell he’s actually trying to do through the whole book is maddeningly obfuscated.

Moreover, while Brown’s research is impeccable (which isn’t to say I’m ready to buy that it’s all accurate, but he’s certainly a master at finding obscure works of art, artists, locations and historical figures from all over the world and painting a realistic-sounding account of how they’re all tied together, whether or not they actually were), I felt that his narrative suffered in this book. For starters, some of the secrets that he was so carefully trying to keep hidden until the very end jumped out at me fairly early on. One in particular, related to the main bad guy, wasn’t revealed until the final chapters but was clear to me probably a quarter of the way into the book. And I don’t pretend to be all that smart or insightful, I think it was just much more obvious than Brown wanted it to be.

Also, the beginning of the book was lackluster for a lot longer than I can recall Brown’s other books having been. It seemed to take forever for the story to get moving, a complication that I believe was added by the presence of a government official who was much more involved in this book than in the others, but served to slow the pace tremendously as she struggled to insert herself into the story. I clearly remember observing to my wife at least twice that the story seemed to be taking forever to get going. Once it did, it raced along nicely, but I suspect that Brown was experimenting with some things like letting us know the antagonist better and introducing the government official and it didn’t end up working out as well as he might have wanted. Granted, the book has already sold a bazillion copies so I doubt that he’s too upset about it.

There was one other difference between this story and the prior two, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who plan to read this novel but haven’t done so yet. Spoilers follow, so skip the next two paragraphs if you want to read the book as a Lost Symbol virgin:

In the prior two works, Langdon pitted his academic skepticism against religious mysticism and won. In the end, it was clearly reveled that what many took to be magic or divine influence was nothing more than human ritual and genius. In the Lost Symbol, the opposite occurs. We’re introduced to the spiritualism of the Freemasons, who guard the lost secrets of the ancients and their superior understanding of the human mind’s capacity for paranormal expression. Brown ties together the ancient lost secrets guarded by the Masons and the modern science of Noetics, which studies everything from faith healing to the existence of the soul.

And, in a big departure from his earlier works, concludes that the spiritualism is genuine and is on the brink of changing the world. While Langdon, the character, seems to remain at least nominally skeptical, Brown seems to have bought into the idea and ends the book with the world about to learn that “God is inside each of us” and that the mind is able to work miracles. Given the extent to which Brown’s earlier works were bastions of skepticism and secularism, I found the ending of The Lost Symbol more fantastical than I’d expected, and it was a bit jarring. It wasn’t so overt as to feel like a Jehovah’s Witness standing at your door challenging your beliefs (or lack thereof), but it felt a little sneaky primarily because I was expecting the usual humanist, mysticism-free resolution and didn’t get it.

Spoilers complete

Overall, The Lost Symbol is an entertaining and enlightening read. At least, it’s enlightening to whatever extent the information about the Masons and Washington D.C. architecture is factual and unencumbered by artistic license. It makes a solid addition to the Robert Langdon saga, despite starting a bit slowly and involving some elements (ie. the spoilers, above) that struck me as out of place in this series. The book engaged and amused me, which is mostly what I require of a novel, despite its flaws. I rate Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol a solid B.

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