My freshman year of high school, one of my best friends recommended that I read Dan Brown’s mega-seller The Da Vinci Code. The book had remained on the New York Times bestseller list already for a year at that point, and so I gave the book a try. While I was instantly fascinated with the way that Brown combined a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of art and history with elements of an Elmore Leonard thriller, age hasn’t done the book many favors, and it’s obvious now that much of the book’s fame comes from its now infamous theories concerning the Holy Grail and that Brown will never be a master of strong characterization or even plotting that makes any sense once you’ve put any thought into it. Angels & Demons was a notable exception to this rule (though Deception Point and Digital Fortress had more in common with The Da Vinci Code structurally). For once, Brown was able to forge a stunning and engrossing thriller that didn’t rely on some shocking claim or unbelievable contrivances to propel the book forward. It was packed with twists and turns, but they all made sense within the context of the story and trying to stop the destruction of the Vatican by legitimate potential science felt more natural than a main character of The Da Vinci Code being a descendant of Christ (the non-fiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail handles the whole Sang Real stuff much better than Brown ever could). While nothing will ever stop Robert Langdon from being Dan Brown’s own personal walking box for endless exposition with little personality of his own, there is no denying how much fun and educational it was to read Angels & Demons. Brown’s last book, 2009’s The Lost Symbol, manages to be a step backwards from the already uneven The Da Vinci Code and every aspect of Brown’s writing that critics tend to dismiss is put on full display. While the book certainly kept me engrossed, I was once and for all forced to confront Brown’s myriad weaknesses as an author.
Continuing the story of Robert Langdon, professional symbologist and amateur survivor of endless attempts on his life, set forth first in Angels & Demons and next The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol takes place years after the end of The Da Vinci Code (with absolutely nothing said as to what happened to Sophie Neveu). Back to teaching at Harvard and having remained mum on the events in Paris, Langdon is summoned to Washington, D.C. by his old friend and benefactor, Peter Solomon. Solomon is a rich and powerful philanthropist who also happens to be the highest ranking Mason in America. When Langdon arrives in Washington, he discovers the severed hand of Peter Solomon in the Capital Rotunda and that he was called to Washington not by his old friend but by a mysterious man known only as Mal’akh, a shadowy figure intent on finding a legendary Masonic Pyramid in Washington, D.C. which legend states hides secrets that will unlock the untapped power inside of humanity. As Langdon rushes to decipher the many codes and puzzles at the heart of the Masonic legends and rescue his friend, he eventually meets up with Solomon’s younger sister Katherine, a scientist in the growing field of noetic sciences (the study of the ability of human though to have a tangible effect on the world). Langdon and Katherine must outrun the CIA and the machinations of one of the most brilliantly evil villains in the series before time runs out.
Brown has some of the most clumsy prose this side of Stephenie Meyer. Real people do not speak the way the characters in his book do. While he certainly has an elaborate eye for detail when he’s discussing architecture and art, that could possibly be the most positive thing you can say about his actual writing style. Chapters are almost never more than a couple pages long, and though this gives the book its fast-paced and can’t put down feel, it also forces Brown to rush and muddle plot points that should have a little more time to develop and begin to make sense. As supposedly brilliant and perceptive Robert Langdon and Katherine Solomon are supposed to be, they seem especially apt to fall for the exact same kinds of tricks and traps that have plagued Langdon since he was first sent out to the Vatican all those years ago. If Brown lavished the sort of detail and attention to his actual plotting and artistry of his prose that he did on every little meaning in some painting or building, these books could be undeniable classics. Instead, it feels like you’re attending an entry level lecture in art symbolism with some artificial and forced plot thrown in. My favorite parts of these books are the non-fiction and educational aspects, and at times, I just wish that Brown would go ahead and write a non-fiction book because making art seem intriguing is his specialty. Instead, we’ve now had three books filled with a main character who is almost without personality and who seems so boring in comparison to the Pope’s Camerlengo from Angels & Demons and the mysterious Mal’akh of this novel.
Even more than in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown falls prey to some very New Age and psuedo-scientific principles to form the central core of his story. The main mystery of the novel is unraveling the Ancient Mysteries of the Masonic order which only the truly enlightened can find. To say that the end of this book is a cop out, would be like saying that the Season 1 finale of Lost was just a conventional cliff-hanger. Combining some very circumspect notions on the organized religions of the world with nonsense taking straight of Jungian philosophy (there’s a reason why Karl Jung is the only classic psychologist given less respect than Sigmund Freud in today’s academic circles), Brown will make anyone with even the slightest background or familiarity with science and physics nauseous with the way he bandies around his so-called science as fact. While noetics is certainly an interesting field and if it ever develops to the extent that Katherine Solomon pushed it in The Lost Symbol, then maybe I won’t be so skeptical. But as it is, Brown unnecessarily added some science fiction but mostly fantasy elements to a story that was otherwise centered in the real world. People have accused him of remarkable scientific and historical inaccuracies in the past, and what’s on display in The Lost Symbol, is about as egregious as it gets.
Before you think I completely hated this book, don’t get that impression. When I read it at work, I was glues to the pages, and the final twist of the book concerning the identity of the main villain was very shocking and I didn’t remotely see it coming. I learned a lot about the Freemasons and I walked away from the book with a renewed respect for their order (although once again, without wanting to ruin anything, I’m not sure that the national security threat the CIA saw in this book was nearly as serious as the book made it out to be). I don’t think this book is remarkably different than any of the other books that Dan Brown has written. It’s just that I’m now able to recognize his writing for what it is for the very first time. Having read other authors like Neil Gaiman who are able to combine mythology and history into their works while maintaining a high level of artistic ambition, it just makes Dan Brown seem depressingly conventional and stale. While I still think very highly of Angels & Demons, I do wonder how it would stand up against another read at this point in my life. If you’re fans of Dan Brown, this is more of everything you love about him. If you’re not, this book won’t change your mind.
Final Score: B-