How Bad Can It Be?: Dan Brown, “The Lost Symbol”

On one level, there seems little point in reviewing a Dan Brown book. He’s big enough now that he’s critic-proof, and my little barbs will penetrate his mighty armor of public adoration not one jot. But you know, sometimes criticism isn’t about influence; sometimes, it’s a matter of conscience. And on the matter of The Lost Symbol being a terrible book — abysmally written, ludicrously plotted, resting on a foundation of knuckleheaded historical speculation and flat-out pseudo-scientific wrongness — I will not be silent.

You don’t have to be a great writer, Lord knows, to achieve popular literary success. But has there ever been a worse writer than Dan Brown to ever become so successful? It’s a trick question, of course, because there’s never been a writer quite as successful as Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code has sold more copies than all four Twilight books put together — more copies than the Merriam-Webster dictionary, fa chrissakes. J.K. Rowling has sold more books overall, but no single volume of the Harry Potter series has racked up Da Vinci Code numbers.

Besides, Rowling is — despite her huge and glaring flaws as a prose stylist and a systematic thinker — pretty good with character and mood. She’s still a terrible writer, but she’s a slightly more lustrous shade of terrible than Dan Brown. True fact, The Da Vinci Code is not a good book, and Brown’s latest, The Lost Symbol, carries on in the tradition. And if you haven’t read it and intend to, be warned: from this point on, I will be SPOILING like mayonnaise in a hot car.

I have a theory. It’s not a literary theory, but a theory of personality — Dan Brown’s personality, to be precise. See, I figure Dan Brown probably enjoys all the perks of being a writer (who wouldn’t?), but is not much interested in the craft of writing. The Lost Symbol is all plot and ciphers (one using the “pigpen” code from that one issue of Boy’s Life, another apparently created in MS Word with Zapf Dingbats), told with about as much verve or emotional heft as a Will Shortz back-page puzzle from the Times. Or maybe — and this is perhaps a better comparison — as Myst; the structure and lack of emotional affect make the whole enterprise feel like a video game. Stuff happens. Puzzles are solved. Move to a new location — a new level — and start the process again.

But there’s no sense of joy to Brown’s work, no sense that he’s having a good time telling stories and making stuff up. An editor of my acquaintance talks about “the delight factor.” Rudy Rucker calls them “eyeball kicks” — the little jolts that good fiction gives you on nearly every page — and I take him to mean kicks in both senses of the word; both of a violent jarring sensation, and of getting your ya-yas out. They’re both talking about the pleasures of a text — the shape of a well-made sentence turning in your ear like a key, or way a startling simile seems to fall from the sky, or the way a character can with a single action summarize both his charms and his vices. Brown gives you none of that.

The wondrous thing about writing fiction is that it gives you a chance to be someone else for a while, to walk around inside other people’s heads, to see the world as they do, to think as they do. An author of fiction, though a pacifist himself, might write a passionate defense of preemptive military action; an atheist might assume the voice of a believer, or vice-versa. You can stretch out, and try on attitudes and perceptions antithetical to your own. (In fact, if you’re playing fairly with your characters and your audience, you pretty much have to.) But there is one experience, one trait that cannot be successfully imagined from outside — and that’s smarts. You can’t convincingly write a character who is cleverer than you are.

And that’s a problem for Dan Brown. His hero, Robert Langdon, is supposed to be a brilliant scholar (in the fictitious discipline of “symbology,” which entails elements of comparative religion, art history, and cryptography, as the plot demands) as well as an internationally best-selling author, sought-after public speaker, beloved professor, and one-time All-American water polo champion. Now, Brown surely sells a lot of books, and for all I know he swims like a fish, but friends, I’m here to tell you: he’s no towering intellect.

This extract, from early in the book, first sounded my warning bells. Langdon — whose Harvard lectures are so popular that he has to teach his class in the Sanders Theater — is speaking about Masonic symbolism. One of the students opines that the whole thing sounds like “a freaky cult.”

Langdon feigned a sad sigh. “Too bad. If that’s too freaky for you, then I know you’ll never want to join my cult.”Silence settled over the room.

The student from the Women’s Center looked uneasy. “You’re in a cult?”

Langdon nodded and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun god Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh.”

The class looked horrified.

Langdon shrugged. “And if any of you care to join me, come to the Harvard chapel on Sunday, kneel beneath the crucifix, and take Holy Communion.”

OH SNAP! YOU GO, ROBERT! Freshmen beeyotches = PWNED!!!one!

(A note on usage, by the way: In the face of passages like that one, many reviewers resort to writing in a pastiche of Brown’s style. I won’t be going that far — the stuff is beyond parody, frankly — but for best results I recommend that all quoted passages be read to the accompaniment of this soundtrack.)

Anyway. That, right there? That’s a dumb guy’s idea of how smart people talk — a thunderously obvious “insight” served up as a blinding revelation, all with a faux-urbane attitude (after dropping that little bon mot, Langdon literally winks; Constant Reader, I threw up a little). Brown is constantly rigging the game, surrounding Langdon with dimwits easily-impressed by his genius, when in reality it’s hard to imagine a class of high-school freshmen being wowed by Langdon’s little pagan-day-of-Ra stunt, let alone Harvard students. Secondary characters emerge whose only purpose is to ask Langdon leading questions. For instance, there’s Inoue Sato, head of a special CIA investigative unit; here’s her half of the conversation stretching across pages 79 and 80 of the hardcover:

And why would Peter Solomon say that if it weren’t true?

Did he explain why Peter thinks you alone can unlock the portal?

In all of your discussions with Peter, he never once mentioned to you anything about a secret portal in Washington, D.C.?

I’m sorry? The man told you specifically what this portal leads to?

So you’ve heard of the secret he believes is hidden here.

Then how can you say the portal does not exist?

You’re saying the secret he believes is hidden in Washington is a fantasy?

And yet it’s still around?

So what exactly are these… Ancient Mysteries?

Dangerous in what way?

Tell me, Professor, do you believe such powerful information could truly exist?

Well, Terry, I’m glad you asked. You really are the best interviewer in the business, you know.

That sense of being able to out-think the characters (and the author) effectively kills a lot of the suspense of The Lost Symbol; for a thriller, it’s remarkably unthrilling. The villain’s true identity — which is supposed to be this huge, hairpin plot twist — was telegraphed from so far away that when the big reveal came, I was actually confused: Didn’t we find out who he was, like, fifty chapters ago? Then I realized that although, I the reader had worked it out some two hundred pages previous, the characters had not yet figured it out — further undermining the notion that they’re all exceptionally clever and capable individuals.

(That being said, Brown did pull off one very neat third-act reversal that I never saw coming, with a resurrection act as audacious as it is implausible. So, um, yay? I guess.)

In part, my confusion probably stems from Brown’s maddening repetitiousness. He seems to ascribe to Army training standard of communication: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” If a plot point or event is at all important, it will be mentioned again, and often. It may be inherent — Brown himself admits he has a short attention span — or it may be by design, an acknowledgement that his books are designed to be read in short bursts during airport layovers and subway commutes; but for the reader who’s plowing straight through, it gets annoying quickly. At 500+ pages, The Lost Symbol is a long book in which comparatively little actually happens — the action takes place in a single 12-hour span — and even with the 2-page mini-chapters and micro-climaxes, a rigorous edit could have trimmed a hundred pages or more with no loss in readability. There are a lot of recaps and much that simply feels like padding. (Then again, it wouldn’t do for a beloved author to break a long silence with a slender little book, would it? You’ve got to make people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, after all, especially if it’s an audience that doesn’t otherwise buy many books — and you’ve got that multi-million dollar advance to justify.)

As for Brown’s much-vaunted research, it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. He throws around esoteric terms and factoids, but without any sense that he really understands them or their significance. That was bad enough with the conspiracy-theory and pseudo-history of the previous books. But when he starts in with the mysticism central to The Lost Symbol, Brown demonstrates that you can’t just bluff your way through metaphysics. Here he’s talking about the Solomon siblings, old friends of Langdon’s. Katherine is a research scientist, while Peter is a scholar of religion and philosophy. They’re working together in a discipline called Noetic Science (of which more later):

Katherine and Peter had pooled their favorite texts here, writings on everything from particle physics to ancient mysticism. …. Most of Katherine’s books bore titles like Quantum Consciousness, The New Physics, and Principles of Neural Science. Her brother’s bore older, more esoteric titles like Kybalion¸ the Zohar, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and a translation of the Sumerian tablets from the British Museum.

By the way, if you think for a moment that Dan Brown has read all (or indeed any) of those books beyond the jacket flaps, I’ve got a painting in Paris I’d like to sell you. Peter is trying to convince Katherine that a lot of modern scientific theory is anticipated in the work of ancient sages. There’s a lot of hand-waving about Heisenberg reading the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, then this:

“I want to study cutting-edge theoretical physics. The future of science! I really doubt Krishna or Vyasa had much to say about superstring theory and multidimensional cosmological models.”

“You’re right. They didn’t.” Her brother paused, a smile crossing his lips. “If you’re talking superstring theory…” He wandered over to the bookshelf yet again. “Then you’re talking this book here.” He heaved out a colossal leather-bound book [The Complete Zohar]… “Thirteenth-century translation of the original medieval Aramaic.”

…Katherine studied the page. …[T]o her amazement, the text and drawings clearly outlined the exact same universe heralded by modern superstring theory — a ten-dimensional universe of resonating strings. As she continued reading, she suddenly gasped and recoiled. “My God, it even describes how six of the dimensions are entangled and act as one?!” She took a frightened step backward. …. “You’re saying the early mystics knew their universe had ten dimensions?”

“Absolutely.” He motioned to the page’s illustration of ten intertwined circles called Sephiroth. “Obviously, the nomenclature is esoteric, but the physics is very advanced.”

Also, check it out: how many Commandments are there? That’s right. Now, d’you want to seriously get your lid flipped? Okay. Go ahead and count your fingers. Both hands. Go on. I’ll wait. See what I mean? I know, right? How could they have known?

Now, admittedly, I’m no expert on the Kabbala, and my knowledge of the tenfold Sephiroth has been mostly picked up from comic books — but I know glib, opportunistic bullshit when I smell it, and this is a shitknife that cuts both ways; Brown is trying to use cutting-edge science to make ancient philosophy seem relevant, while simultaneously using ancient philosophy to make cutting-edge science seem spiritually important. But in order to find the lowest common denominator between the two disciplines, he’s got to dumb both sides of the equation down so far that the passage has the opposite effect, cheapening both physics and mysticism. (And again, note the weakness of the writing — the strained, clumsy imagining of how smart people talk to each other, and the attempt to make the material convincing by sheer force of emphasis, including repeated use of the “?!” typographical construction, which I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen in print outside of, well, a comic book.)

So what are the metaphysical underpinnings of the Lost Symbol, exactly? What shattering truth about human nature and forbidden knowledge sets this plot grinding into motion? For that, let’s take a look at a clip from 1978’s Circle Of Iron, a.k.a. The Silent Flute. The irritable poodle-haired muscleman is our hero, and he’s spent the whole movie questing for a mystical book that contains within it all the secrets of the Universe. This sequence is the big payoff. Sit back and tighten your hat, friends, because your mind, she is about to be BLOWN:

Dan Brown, God bless him, aims for that level of profundity. Indeed, there’s something almost touchingly credulous in his worldview — not just his childlike faith in the mass media’s ability to rouse the masses to action (In the book’s other main plot thread, the huge crisis that everyone is trying to avert is the uploading of hidden-camera footage of the Washington Freemasons lodge to YouTube, lest the sight of high-ranking U.S. officials play-acting with skulls and daggers spark a firestorm of anti-Masonic fury that could bring down the government. No, really, that’s the threat.), but the book’s apparent wholesale endorsement of Noetics — a “discipline” that strives to justify metaphysics by cloaking it in science, to the detriment of both.

A man’s free to believe what he wants, of course, but one likes to think that a writer of thrillers is necessarily a bit hard-headed, a bit bloody-minded. Not so Dan Brown. For an ostensible thriller, The Lost Symbol isn’t terribly suspenseful. The autrhor seems less interested in making us sweat than in educating us — even, God help us, in uplifting us. And thus the feel-good piffle of Noetics, which lies roughly on a level with Intelligent Design on the despicability scale. All that guff about weighing the body immediately after death to establish that the human soul has a physical weight, or that dying plants revive in the presence of prayerful thoughts? That’s Noetic science, in its crudest form — tailor-made for gullible chumps who believe everything they read in forwarded e-mails.

Or that they see in stealth-marketed propaganda films for daffy New Age cults. The notions behind Noetic Science have gone mainstream with the movies The Secret and What the [Bleep] Do We Know?, which is how I suspect they came onto Dan Brown’s radar in the first place. Those movies, and the pseudoscience they espouse, deserve a takedown of their own — which is exactly what they’ll get in the next column. Yes, friends, it’s a two-part exclusive How Bad Can It Be? hatestravaganza; my knives are out and sharp and I do hope you’ll stay with me. Trust me: Your mind = GUARANTEED BLOWN.

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Jack Feerick
Jack Feerick — critic-at-large, freelance know-it-all, and three-time Jeopardy! champion — lives and works in upstate New York with his family, three two cats, and a neurotic Husky. You can hit him up on Twitter, and maybe buy a book while you're at it.