Review of The Lost Symbol
By Dan Brown
Date of Publication: 2009
Genre: Potboiler, Mystery, Thriller
NB – I wrote this review shortly after the book was published. I made some changes and revisions to the original when I prepared it for this blog. I am putting it on my blog in anticipation of Brown’s upcoming novel, Inferno.
2009 saw the release of The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s third installment in his successful series about Robert Langdon, following Angels and Demons (2000) and The Da Vinci Code (2004). The story follows the Harvard symbologist on an adventure that takes him across Washington, DC, from the highest pinnacles to the lowest depths to just about every main point of interest that can be found in any tourist guide to the city. On Langdon’s night-long journey, he must figure out a sequence of increasingly complicated Masonic codes, pictorial and architectural mysteries, and historical misunderstandings to save the life of his mentor, billionaire Peter Solomon, from the esoterically evil Mal’akh, all while being chased by the CIA’s Office of Security. Langdon is aided and abetted for much of the book by Solomon’s brilliant noetic scientist sister, Katherine.
Brown has peopled his book with the usual assortment of interchangeable characters that can be found in his previous books. Robert Langdon is still brilliant, rugged, handsome, witty, and completely devoid of any real personality. This smug and somewhat precious university professor is both an unusual and clichéd choice to be the central character in an adventure thriller. He is the classic unwilling hero. He has been tricked into coming to Washington, DC, and told that his friend will die unless he (Langdon) can figure out the messages and codes hidden around the city. He must find the location to the hidden Masonic treasure, a secret to unlimited power over man and god that was hidden in Washington because the great minds of the 18th and 19th centuries realized that American democracy was a really good thing. Not only can he find the treasure, but he is the only person who can unravel the Gordian knot of coded clues that leads to it. At least, that is what the readers are led to believe. However, Brown fails in 500 pages to demonstrate why Langdon should be the one chosen by the villain to decipher the secrets and why no one else can do it.
It is amply and frequently shown that Langdon is not the only one who can solve the various mysteries. Indeed, when Langdon finally goes to see the Masonic treasure, he is taken by someone who knew the location long before the action of the book started; Langdon does not discover it, or much of anything else, on his own. Langdon does little more than stop everyone in the middle of whatever mini-puzzle or brief adventure they are in and drag down the narrative flow of the novel with a long-winded lecture intended to surprise and intrigue the others, or at least the readers. Brown frequently reminds us that Langdon’s dollops of brilliance are impressive for they awe his Harvard students. It must be noted that Langdon’s students are easily impressed by revelations that are neither profound nor new (cannibalistic aspects of Christianity or Masonic influences in the design and architecture of Washington, DC, for example). Considering one of his best friends is in mortal danger throughout much of the book, Langdon spends an inordinate amount of time being distracted by his own erudition.
Mal’akh is the villain of the piece. His real name and origins are part of his mystery. He is tattooed from head to toe, with the exception of one small spot on the top of his head—also part of his mystery. Mal’akh has studied, bullied, and bribed his way to be a 33rd level Mason, so that he can ascertain the whereabouts of the legendary Masonic treasure that will give him power. During his life, Mal’akh has turned himself from wretched inmate to gazillionaire philanthropist, from nobody to one of the intellectual and cultured elite. Men want to be him; women want to be with him. Pick your cliché. What the wealthy, influential, and powerful Mal’akh wants to do with the power, influence, and wealth of the treasure is never fully explained. Mal’akh is ruthless, sociopathic, brilliant, immensely wealthy, and wickedly evil. All Mal’akh needs to do to be more wickedly evil is to twirl his mustache and make poor Nell (er…Katherine) pay the rent before Dudley Do Right (Langdon) can save the day. Even more melodramatically, he dismembers Peter Solomon and tattoos cryptic messages on parts of Solomon’s body, elaborately tricks Langdon into coming to Washington, and sends Langdon on a nocturnal wild-goose chase to find the Masons’ treasure; at the same time, he sidetracks to dispose of sister Katherine before her research blows the lid off our spiritually complacent society.
The best thing about noetic scientist/billionaire’s sister/female lead Katherine Solomon is that there is no romantic connection between her and Langdon. Perhaps Brown (or his editors) realized that the witty flirtatious banter that he produced in his previous books was lame. Perhaps Brown (or film director Ron Howard—The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons films) realized that attaching an aging Tom Hanks romantically with yet another vapid starlet half his age would stretch suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, however willing it might be. Other than her lack of romantic appeal, Katherine serves little purpose other than to distract Mal’akh and the readers. For a red herring, Brown gives her a lot of ink. She is a scientist who has developed, without too much influence from the Masons, scientific proof that, among other things, the soul exists, mysticism is actually science, and that the mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mal’akh has to eliminate her, or her research will change the world in ways for which he does not think the world is prepared. For Mal’akh, Katherine and her research are unnecessary distractions. Simply put: her findings are neither conclusive (if we trust Brown’s descriptions), profound, nor even scientifically valid (they have no method or control and have ethical issues); they might impress some people—the type of person whose faith would be profoundly shaken by books like…well…The Da Vinci Code. She is not building orgone boxes, but she is only a few steps ahead of that. Katherine serves a purpose for Langdon, however, being a font of scientific trivia when Langdon cannot answer the riddles with his encyclopedic recall of historical and symbolical minutia.
The rest of Brown’s characters are simplistically drawn static contrivances. Everyone is hearty and resilient. None of the pain, torture, and near-death experiences has any physical or psychological impact of any of the characters—like Weebles, they simply bounce back up and into the next phase of the adventure. Some are so thinly drawn that they approach stereotypes: the Asian CIA director is inscrutable and, at under 5’ tall, has a clear Napoleon complex. No one ever seems to be concerned that someone else might be in danger; if they were, they might not spend so much time talking around each and every point. Furthermore, everyone knows too much; the novel could have been ended before it began if Solomon had simply told Mal’akh the secret—under torture, he tells Mal’akh everything else. Even when Langdon is confronted with a riddle to solve, inevitably, there is someone sitting next to him who nods; says, ‘You’re right. I was wondering how long it would take you to figure it out’; then points him and towards the next clue. Mal’akh does not even bother to tell Langdon what the professor is supposed to do; he simply deposits the first clue and stays in touch by cell phone. Much of the plot of resembles that of a bad sitcom: everything could be resolved in a simple conversation, but for some reason, no one is saying what clearly needs to be said.
Apparently, Dan Brown has never met a conspiracy theory he did not like or a Wikipedia article he did not believe (and, yes, he does take a poke at Wikipedia). The Lost Symbol is filled with weak history and bad linguistics. For example, much is made of the word temple (the part of the body and the religious building) and the reasons for the use of the same word. Indeed, much of the ‘secret’ in the book relies on the connection between the two. However, the two words merely sound the same; there is no linguistic connection—they have different roots.
There is an old saying: the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. That is, if the payoff is worth it, we might overlook some of the flaws in the novel. There are three moments of resolution in the book: the revelation of Mal’akh’s reasons for pursuing the treasure and trying to destroy the Solomon family; the location of the Masonic treasure; and, the nature of said treasure. In all three cases, they are predictable. In Mal’akh’s case, his indignation is petty and his final confrontation with his demons is silly at best. As for the location of the secret, Langdon spends so much time denying that there is a Masonic secret (one would think that after his encounters with the Illuminati and the Priory of Sion he might not be quite so skeptical) that he is the only one who does not seem to know where it is located – the average reader certainly will. By the time Langdon figures out the secret, the reader will have been bludgeoned with it so many times that he/she might have bruises; at best, the feeling is, “Who cares?” The Lost Symbol reads like a 500-page shaggy-dog story—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The book has some merit. It is a fast journey that carries Langdon and the reader from one cliffhanger to the next. There is rarely enough down time for anyone to stop and think about what he/she is reading. This is to the book’s advantage. Brown tells us that what we are reading is important and profound; as long as we don’t question him, we can simply hold on for the ride and enjoy the scenery. Brown is certainly not a great writer, but he keeps his prose simple and to the point. No one is moved by his turn of phrase, but no one will be confused by clever turns of phrases, obscure passages, or complicated metaphors. Brown is the artistic heir to the likes of Clive Cussler. The Lost Symbol is, at best, a bit of harmless fluff. At worst, it is a bit of harmless fluff.
This book was a huge bestseller. But it did not have the same impact that its predecessors had. One reason is location. Paris and Rome are cities with history, romance, and mystery. Readers want to be transported to those cities and soak them up. Nobody really cares about Washington, DC—a fact Langdon tells his students in an extended flashback—unless, of course, you are looking for the Ark of the Covenant or The Book of Secrets. Another reason is that while there may be a few hysterics who will latch on to the Masonic ‘treasure’ we are presented with at the end, most simply will not really care.
Reading The Lost Symbol is not a waste of time, if only because there is something to be said about actually being able to discuss a book with other people. Go to the library and read their copy, read an electronic version, buy the paperback (where it should have been published in the first place). Books like this should be tolerated, but they should not be encouraged. If enough people buy this book, then Brown might write more.
(for all its flaws, it is a diverting, often frustrating, read)