Thursday, January 21, 2010

The lost symbol

Immersing myself in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, I was reminded of the title of Elvis Presley’s second greatest hits album, released in 1959: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

That’s a useful sentiment in considering Brown, whose novels Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code have created the largest rift between critical reception and commercial reaction in, well, the history of the printed word.

The Da Vinci Code has sold an estimated 80 million copies in more than forty languages; critically, however, it is generally — though not universally — reviled (and if the critical response isn’t negative enough, you should spend some time on-line in book and writers’ forums, where mention of Brown is usually accompanied, one assumes, by the sound of spitting.)

The critical response is understandable, but misguided. By most accepted critical yardsticks, Brown’s work is lacking: his prose is workmanlike, at best; his characterizations are crepe-paper thin; his dialogue (if one can refer to earnestly delivered lectures as such) is stilted and unnatural; and his plot developments stretch credibility to the breaking point.

What the standard critical approach fails to take into account, however, is that none of these things actually matter.

It is wrongheaded to analyze Dan Brown’s fiction using the same indices one would use on a new book by Alice Munro; each work requires examination on its own terms. The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons earned their legions of readers because Brown does what he sets out to do very well: the novels are story machines, whose main purpose is to wrap readers within the narrative and push them through it.

The phrase “page-turner” has never applied to a novel so well as it does to the works of Dan Brown. Few readers would find themselves sacrificing sleep to find out what happens next in a Michael Ondaatje novel, say, in the same way that few Dan Brown readers are concerned about the quality of his prose.

All of which boils down to this: any new work from Dan Brown needs to be evaluated on its own terms, and in the context of his other works.

On those terms, The Lost Symbol is a staggering disappointment.

The novel begins with turtleneck-wearing symbologist Robert Langdon being invited by his friend and mentor Peter Solomon, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the scion of an aristocratic American family, to deliver a speech at the U.S. Capitol.

It’s a set-up, however. Solomon has been kidnapped, and his attacker has brought Langon to Washington to draw him into a plan to find the long hidden treasure of the Freemasons. Langdon will play along, or his friend, a high-ranking Mason, will be killed. To demonstrate the stakes, the villain presents Solomon’s severed hand in the Capitol Rotunda. The freshly tattooed fingers point upward to The Apotheosis of Washington, the dome painting which depicts the transformation of George Washington into a classical god-figure.

That painting is the first clue in a search that will take Langdon, over the course of a single night, through the Masonic underpinnings of both Washington D.C. and American history itself, placating the mysterious, almost fully tattooed villain “who called himself Mal’akh,” who is seeking the Masonic treasure in a quest for his own apotheosis. It’s a promising opening, and in the broad strokes, The Lost Symbol delivers exactly what Brown’s fans have been waiting for: a fast-paced, historically informed adventure, steeped in puzzles, history, familiar landmarks, art analysis and enough almost-convincing conspiracies to keep the internet humming.

The execution of the novel, however, leaves much to be desired. For starters, it lacks the uniqueness of Brown’s previous novels. Mal’akh, for example, is a psychotic villain straight out of B-movie central casting, always implausibly one step ahead of Langdon and his cohorts. He also bears an uncomfortably close similarity to Francis Dolarhyde, the tattooed, Blake-obsessed, apotheosis-seeking killer in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon.

The novel is also clumsy in its plotting and direction, areas where Brown is usually at his best. The twists in the novel lack impact and surprise, and are too often telegraphed with Brown’s trademark mini-cliffhangers.  An effective approach in his previous books, here the metronomic regularity of leading declaratives (“If Langdon had not yet grasped his role here tonight, soon he would.” and “...Robert Langdon might suffer a similar fate.” etc) is almost insulting in its clumsy manipulativeness.

Even more insulting is Brown’s habit of withholding information from the reader in the interest of building suspense. In that vein, the novel’s most significant narrative secret -- the real identity of Mal’akh -- is so thuddingly obvious I would be stunned if a single reader hadn’t figured it out less than a hundred pages in. Which makes the next 350 pages, and the big “reveal,” an excercise in frustration. I was distracted from the narrative as I tried to convince myself that Brown couldn’t possibly be so obvious, couldn’t possibly stoop so clumsily. Unfortunately, he was. And he did.

The Lost Symbol is a heavy-handed, clumsy thriller from someone we know can do so much better. If it didn’t have Brown’s name on the cover, it would disappear without a ripple. Sure, it sucks the reader in, but, ultimately, it plays them for suckers. It’s as if Brown has given in to his harsher critics, delivering the big, brainless thriller he has long been accused of purveying.


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