Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol picks up right where The Da Vinci Code left off in another thrilling, puzzle-solving, authorities-eluding mystery. The only difference is that it’s set in the capital of the United States of America, Washington D.C., a city which this reviewer had the pleasure of visiting twice this summer. Brown’s previous Robert Langdon novels, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, were set in Rome and Paris respectively, two cities which this reviewer had the pleasure of visiting last year. Having read all of these books, been to all of these cities, and seen most of the monuments described by Brown in person, I gotta say…America is boring.
Robert Langdon’s newest adventure is set first in the Capitol Building, where the protagonist is led by trickery and forced to cooperate with a C.I.A. task force known as the Office of Security (an Office which Brown laboriously notes is “real” [who cares?]). The first 250 pages of the book take place within this building and take about two hours to read, which is more than enough time to spend in the actual Capitol Building, let alone one which is selectively described by mediocre prose. Langdon participates in some good cop, bad cop routine with the unbelievable Inoue Sato, the director of this so-called Office of Security (no, literally, a character like that couldn’t exist – no spoiler).
Amidst the thrilling descriptions of paintings which most are unfamiliar with (compared to those in The Da Vinci Code), we are INTERRUPTED by the story of Katherine Solomon and her discoveries in a field called Noetic science (another “real” thing). Solomon has discovered that human thought has mass and also has the ability to change the environment if focused correctly. Her research is revolutionary, but it threatened by a madman, Mal’akh, whose purpose in the novel is made known through a series of one-line, one-sentence paragraphs of the most dramatic quality. It’s difficult to find interest in Solomon’s story because it continually interrupts the one in which we’re interested, Langdon’s, with narrative dribble and useless background.
The two stories to which we’re introduced have only one thing in common at first: Peter Solomon, the brother of Katherine, has been abducted by the madman Mal’akh, who is now leading Robert Langdon, friend of Peter Solomon, on an intricate (and whole unnecessary) quest for the Ancient Mysteries. This wealth of knowledge will dawn a new age of enlightenment for mankind, but Mal’akh, like every Brown villain before him, has only his personal salvation/atonement/redemption in mind. Ugh, the way Brown writes these characters is so pedantic: they’re always so annoyingly in touch with their feelings, so unilateral, so doctrinaire, that the reader is just plain bored during the chapters about them.
Well, despite the fact that Brown may be a lousy writer, The Lost Symbol does keep you reading. The Ancient Mysteries, it turns out, are connected with the Masons, an ancient society which has played a role in Brown’s previous novels and a group about which the author (and protagonist) seem(s) to understand a lot. Langdon’s quest to find his friend and Katherine Solomon’s quest to find her brother also become the quest for the Mysteries, leading the two characters around various parts of Washington D.C. and into some of the more obscure and admittedly interesting parts of American history. Some of the abstruse facts about the Founding Fathers (which, after some research on this end, are mostly true) are fascinating, although their use in a fictionalized yarn is questionable.
My big concern with The Lost Symbol was that it was so much more interesting in Europe, in Paris, in The Da Vinci Code. I’m not complaining, I enjoy a good thrill, especially from a book, but the closer to home Dan Brown brings Robert Langdon, the less interesting everything becomes. Structurally, the book was also vastly inferior to its two predecessors. Really there were only five settings, the Capitol, the auxiliary Smithsonian Museum (which is “real”), the Cathedral, the mansion, and the final location (no spoiler, sorry). The first half of the book took place in the Capitol alone, which left me feeling frustrated and unimpressed by the lightning pace of the rest of the novel. I don’t know what I expected, but I suppose it wasn’t this.
Since The Lost Symbol is The Da Vinci Code set in America, a critique of the motif that Brown uses is probably more permissible if you’re going to let this review make or break the book for you. I recognize that if you’ve got a good thing going, you should keep it up, but you should also recognize the aspects of that good thing which are bad and try to change them. For instance, Mr. Brown, the crisis in the story shouldn’t always be dependent on a relative of the female protagonist. Vittoria Vetra’s adoptive father, Sophie Neveu’s grandfather, and now Katherine Solomon’s brother have all been the victims of Robert Langdon’s adventures, a recurrence which is just plain incommodious. Secondly, not all characters think in the same voice – the homeless man outside the Library of Congress in The Lost Symbol sounded exactly like the Harvard professor inside the Library of Congress. Does anyone else find that bothersome? Finally, a paragraph is not a chapter unless your Kurt Vonnegut or a comparable contemporary. In an interview I watched with Brown just before writing this review, his interviewer asked him if he sent in one chapter at a time or a block of them to his publisher. I laughed, thinking how Doubleday Publishing would react if Dan Brown sent them a 300 word block of text about Mal’akh and his transformation into a god. Ridiculous.
Hypocrite I may be, but I enjoyed reading The Lost Symbol and look forward to Brown’s next novel. I just hope he can find some new words (“esoteric” twice in the same paragraph?) and break from some of the more tedious points in his speedy narrative.