Friday, October 23, 2009

Dan Brown's Lost Symbol

The Truth? You can't handle the truth!........ A Few Good Men

The Nicholson quote is a theme of every big Dan Brown novel. There is always some set of events which must be concealed from the credulous masses. The Lost Symbol is no exception, only this time that which must be hidden is so banal that I can hardly guess who would care. The other invariable theme is the existence of some sensational but long hidden mystical knowledge, which the hero must unravel by virtue of his decoding skills. These themes served Brown pretty well in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, but here they are starting to look a bit threadbare.

Brown's novelistic virtues are easily summarized: he knows how to create page turning suspense, his ultrashort chapters package the suspense into bite size tidbits, and finally, the richly detailed architectural research that underlies each book gives them a vividness beyond their otherwise modest virtues.

His faults are plenty obvious too: weak and wooden dialog, nearly nonexistent characterization, and the heavily doctored version of history upon which the plots invariably hang.

Art is at best a rather rough simulacrum of life, and every work of art requires a certain amount of cooperation between artist and audience. The first job of a writer, then, is to get the reader to buy into his fiction. The masters of genre fiction have developed a standard set of gimmicks for accomplishing this and with luck, it becomes a conditioned reflex for the reader. The very best selling authors - Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, John Grisham, and Jo Rowling - each developed reliable formulas to do the job.

Dan Brown's formula is particularly repetitive - a sinister villain with occult links, a grisly crime with clues steeped in ancient hocus pocus, a mishmash of Masonic and Catholic mystery, and an urgent summons for his annoyingly dull but supposedly brilliant hero. None of these things is a major obstacle for me - I'm good at suspending disbelief.

*** Some Spoilers Follow ***************

The Lost Symbol follows the formula, but this time the magical principle at stake is truly irritating: Some "ancient mysterious magic" of the kind sold by every street corner New Age charlatan, in the form of the untapped power of the human mind to rule matter if you just know the right kind of magic - Brown calls it Noetic science. This is a pretty distasteful brew for me to swallow. There are other irritations. The villain gets away with his dastardly deeds by virtue of truly obtuse decisions by the responding authorities.


If you were one of those skeptical children surprized by Red Riding Hood's failure to recognize the wolf in Grandmother's clothing, you may find some equally implausible failures to recognize here. You might also be disappointed by the tendency of the characters to fall for the same trick again and again.