Book Review: The Lost Symbol

ashleyDan Brown, you shameless hussy.

With that said, however, I think there’s something to be said for a book as wildly popular as this one will certainly be. So before I start ripping him apart for the purposes of humor and also being right, I would just like to make it known that I do not mind Dan Brown and the role he plays in popular culture. The guy writes what he likes, and people eat it up. I can’t really see anything wrong with that. I can even respect it. For all the negative/inappropriate/stupid things I’m about to say regarding The Lost Symbol, I also have to say that I have read many worse books in my lifetime. Hell, I couldn’t put the fool thing down and I am a busy person.

Doubleday Books, 2009

But now, I have three things to say about Dan Brown, the first of which is that no matter what else you think of him, Dan Brown is without question a first class dweeb. Why is Dan Brown a dweeb? Maybe nerd is a better term, but honestly nerd connotes a certain awareness of popular culture that Brown seems to willfully ignore. Case in point: the way he ever so subtly interweaves defenses of his own persona as an author and a person of note into the character of Robert Langdon. Brown received much media attention and criticism for his strange penchant for turtlenecks and tweed jackets while on his press tour for The Da Vinci Code, so of course in the first fifty pages we have Robert Langdon, who is well known and lots of people know who he is, also has trouble with people making fun of his, you guessed it, turtleneck and tweed jacket. Another example: Langdon calls his editor about mid-way through the book to get a phone number (which was weird to begin with), and the first thing his editor says is this: “You’ve got pages for me to edit, finally?” Either Brown thinks we won’t notice, or that we’ll think it’s funny.

Here’s another example: that mother-effing Mickey Mouse wrist watch that Langdon calls attention to eleven times throughout the narrative. (I counted.) If I had Dan Brown’s email address, I would want to send him this email:

Dear Dan Brown,
I just wanted to let you know that we, your readers, read your books despite the Mickey Mouse wristwatch, which you obviously feel is adorable. It’s not.
Love,
Your Readers Who Give You Lots of Money

Other tics and habits that Dan Brown The Writer seems to fall into/use over and over and over again: he seems to be under the impression that winking isn’t creepy, first of all, which is wrong. When was the last someone winked at you and it wasn’t creepy? Never, that’s when. Another thing he likes to do is something I call the “Actually, Ma’am . . .” Situation. These are places where Langdon takes well known things and turns them on their heads, like how national monuments were really built for the use of secret societies and how the word “atonement” comes from “at one moment.” It’s a neat trick the first ten times, but then it just feels like he’s blowing up childhood pets or something. It would be even more ridiculous if the things he wrote about weren’t mostly true, at least to some degree.

Then there’s his writing style. I think since his purpose is to thrill and titillate, we shouldn’t be too hard on the guy, but you have to admit that his prose is less than polished. There are one billion chapters in this book and every single one of them ends in a cliff hanger, and Brown tends to use one or two images or childhood memories for main characters and call it “characterization.” For instance, Langdon’s constant mentioning of the time he spent down a well as a child, and wah wah wah. We know nothing about Langdon as a person except that he’s claustrophobic and that he’s a giant nerd. (Similarly, we know nothing about the novel’s other main character, Katherine [SPOILER] other than like all of her family was murdered.) Brown’s characters aren’t so much characters as they are pieces in a puzzle that need to be moved around in order for his message to get out. Again, this is fine for the purpose of the book, but it needs to be mentioned.

Brown isn’t a character writer, he’s a twists and turns scare the crap out of you and turn your world upside down writer. Take the craziness of the premise with noetics, which brings me to the second thing I have to say about this book. Brown has a talent for taking the crazy things that are true in our world and making them believable, even shocking. This is a large part of the appeal of his writing. His books are welcome because he spends so much time and energy on them, puts in the work, and doesn’t flood the market with less than his best work. So, if his talent isn’t necessarily words, I think it might be the ability to find our cultural panic buttons. Religion, politics, corruption . . . the man says what he thinks, and he’s damn convincing. Of course, this can be dangerous. He has created a world in which a person like him, well read and interested in arcane knowledge — a nerd of the highest level — is a veritable rock star. We trust Robert Langdon inherently, and with all of his knowledge being based on fact, we also tend to take what he tells us for fact. When I first read The Da Vinci Code way back when, it scared the shit out of me because its premise challenged things that I’d believed all my life, and I didn’t know how to differentiate, how to distinguish between fact and fiction. And that’s the danger of Dan Brown, who is smart and worldly, as he writes for a mass population that is mostly neither.

Other thoughts:

  • Those motherfucking giant squid are everywhere! I go years and years without hearing about The Squid and then WHABAM. They are alive under the ocean, and they are in Dan Brown’s new book.
  • The bad guy is lame and obvious and any time a character interacts with him in one of his affected disguises, it makes me think the character is stupid and should die.
  • The final reveal scene is full of broken fiction rules. Show, not tell, but Brown is all tell. For shame.
  • If you’re going to read it, read it next to the internet. I had to Google so many things: The Apotheosis of Washington, Kryptos, House of the Temple . . .
  • I was very proud that he seemed to have escaped the novel without the classic Dan Brown twist that is in every single one of his books, and then . . . he went there. Ugh.
  • And finally, Dan Brown has important things to say, and that’s really the crux of his books, but he says them in unsophisticated ways. Entertainment Weekly had an article on him a couple of weeks ago that really made me respect the guy. He works HARD. Go check it out.

What about you? Will you be reading? And if you already have, do you agree with my assessment?

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Comments
10 Responses to “Book Review: The Lost Symbol”
  1. Good review, homegirl. It was worth the emotional roller coaster you sent me on with your lies about it already being posted.

    I’ll probably pick it up eventually after I work through a few other books currently in the queue. I find it difficult to get wound up by the formulaic spoon-feeding of a storyline the way he does it. Having said this, though, I’ll go ahead and borrow a page from the Heather Anne Book of Self-Analysis when I tell myself to shut the hell up, because I loved Angels & Demons.

  2. Abigail says:

    I love this. You are such a good review writer.

    I’m sad you didn’t mention the crazy Amazon marketing (for novelty’s sake).

  3. doahleigh says:

    The thing is, I learned a lot from The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, they really made me think. But god he’s an awful writer. I wish I could get the info without having to sift through the terrible plot lines and character developments.

    I probably won’t read The Lost Symbol because I just can’t stomach it. Maybe you could do a little synopsis of the book: things I learned from The Lost Symbol once I got past the horrid writing. Or something.

    • Ashley says:

      You learn stuff from this book, too, but not as much. In the other books, the secret society was his enemy. In this one — and this isn’t a spoiler, you know it from the beginning — the secret society (the Masons) are a group that Langdon respects and who he is trying to protect. A lot of the reviews I’ve read have called Brown a Mason apologist for what he wrote in this book.

  4. Jen says:

    Something I really like about Dan Brown is that he does his research. He obviously learns a lot when he writes his books. I find the historical tidbits fascinating and shocking, which is the whole point, I guess.

    I haven’t read this yet, but I will. I enjoyed your review. I think that people who are really down on the whole Robert Langdon series are missing the point. It’s not supposed to be good literature. It’s supposed to be exciting to read. Plus, this series is much more realistic than some of his other books. Things run a little wild in his imagination and I just can’t suspend my disbelief to the required degree.

    P.S. Angels & Demons is my favorite too!

    • Abigail says:

      I haven’t read Dan Brown, so I’m not trying to pretend I have, but I work in academia and with a team of professors who are constantly fighting with shit like this.

      He has some true (and still exciting) factual tidbits, but he has just as many nonfactual tidbits that people think are true. Of course, he’s hardly the only person in the world doing this, but I hear it more about him than anyone else.

      I feel that what he does is just as bad as James Frey’s Million Little Pieces stunt.

      • Jen says:

        People challenge their professors on info they got from a Dan Brown book? I would think those people were complete tools if I were in the same class. How obnoxious.

  5. heatherannehogan says:

    I just reread The Lost Symbol today because I have crazy intense vertigo and my doctor told me not to move my head, like at all. So, you know, I needed a page-turner. Anyway, when I finished I remembered I never commented on this review even though it was one of my favorite book reviews ever. I almost felt like we read and discussed this book together, ’cause I felt so many of your same feelings — especially about how Dan Brown doesn’t seem to know where he stops and Robert Langdon starts. (I love it when Langdon says early in the book that he didn’t mean to start a war with the Catholic church. Oh, Dan Brown.)

    Anyway, I wanted to say somthing in his defense. I know he’s a kind of clunky writer and some of his exposition reads like Wackopedia, and I know it’s a tricky game he plays with the “two truths and a lie” bit, but I really think it’s a great service to thinking people to ponder stuff like the intersection of different theologies and religions and paganism and history. I know some morons believe Dan Brown is telling the whole truth about everything because they won’t do their own research — but you know what? Loads of people all over the world believe whatever religious thing (Obama is the anti-Christ, gay marriage will rip the fabric of society, 9/11 was punishment for abortion, God is on America’s side in all wars) because they won’t do their own research. And I mean, Dan Brown lives in the fiction section.

    Dan Brown has studied the Bible more than almost every Christian I know. Yeah, he pulls some Biblical verses out of context to form the whole apotheosis theory of this book, but his methodology isn’t really that much different than the way most people form their own personal theology. Plus also: John Wimber was Mr. Fuller Theological Seminary, and he kind of believed what Brown purports in this book.

    I think the appeal of Brown is that he does say important things in unsophisticated ways. It’s also the appeal of modern political punditry. Both make me a little crazy, but for some reason I just can’t look away.

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