It would be a cliché to give Dan Brown a bad review. Like me proving my good-taste blog-writer credentials. Too easy as well. It must be pretty much expected to say a Dan Brown book is poor. Especially so if I was reviewing The Da Vinci Code. Which was actually excellent, if you read it early enough in its incredibly successful life, that is. A real spellbinding thriller – you know it. It was of course, one of the first of that kind of book, but because of all the similar, “me too!”, “we want to sell as many as Dan Brown so we’re gonna write one just like it,” “we’ve also got a Dan Brown on our author list and we’re gonna plaster ‘just like/better than Dan Brown!’ all over just about anything we’ve got…”, it got somewhat tainted by the hundreds of poor imitations. I know it’s true, ‘cause I bought half of them!
Even though I tried to like The Lost Symbol, because I liked ‘Da Vinci Code’ and didn’t need to, ‘cause I got it free from the ‘estate’, shall we say, of a friend of my father-in-law’s, it disappointed again and again until suddenly it was a disappointment all the way through.
Lets’s see. Well, first we’ve got a dysfunctional family producing flawed geniuses whose parents died young (And, the mother ‘murdered’? I think you’d have a hard time getting a conviction there, even in an American court). Which is meant to elicit our sympathy and make them believable. Wrong. Eyes shoot to top of head at that hoary old cliché. And gets me thinking; “He thinks that is gonna work? Oh dear, bad start.” Then there’s a fiendish criminal mastermind. Whose fiendish nastiness is supposedly made more fiendishly intolerable, due to his hyper refinement and what we are supposed to presume – not having had access to the amounts of cash he has and is required – is hyper refinement and therefore good taste. Good taste defined purely by the amount of cash things cost. Like footballers believe. And they play football why? Because they were good at football and nothing else. It’s not like it was a choice between Physics Professor at Oxford or playing football, now was it? You know the sort. “That Fabergé egg looks like shit!” “But it’s worth millions!” “That Fabergé egg looks stunningly lovely!” What it boils down to, is that what he thinks is character development, is actually a really exceptionally dull catalogue list and produces a character exactly the same as every other devilish fiend across the house brick-size thriller market.
And, all the way through, I can’t think of if Robert Langdon was actually described, physically. Clothes and age, yes, but not what he looks like. So, i’m supposed to think Tom Hanks? And his likeability is supposed to radiate out and have you to like the story. Nope, that didn’t help either. Langdon’s supposed be brilliant at codes and code solving…or is he? I can’t actually remember him solving anything in this book. All the codes are solved by others, or the right way has been directed by others and Langdon has just said ‘yes, that’s right!’ No plot turn is based upon his unique ability to solve codes. Even though he is chosen, by the pantomime villain, as the only person in the world who can solve the riddle. Clearly not true. As Langdon himself says; “You know I didn’t do anything, right?” Or, for the umpteenth time; “I’m not sure I entirely understand it myself.” As far as I could see, he didn’t understand anything of what was going on the whole way through. Lord only knows why his rabbit in the headlights character was in the book anyway. They could have managed just as well without him.
So, the daughter of dysfunctional family, with genius siblings, genius father, blah, blah, blah, becomes a scientist. A brilliant one, totally dedicated to science, of course; “Science had become her life partner, and her work had proven more fulfilling and exciting than any man could ever hope to be.” ‘Any’ man? Oh get a life! American thriller writers, as I’ve noted so many times, seem to think it gives their characters more credibility, even believability, if they are 100%, black or white, full-on, no compromises, nowhere to go after saying it, totally, dedicated to something at the cost of everything else. Their social lives, their families – if they have one – everything. Grow up! So childish. “I hate you with all my heart!” How old was I when I last said something like that? 6? 7? As if this gives the character a fully-rounded completeness. For the love of God! “Katherine Solomon had read every word Albert Einstein had ever written…” See? All, or nothing. No where to go after saying that. Except for us. We go and question the validity of that statement. It’s meant to say a lot, but says nothing. Did she read the “milk, eggs, marge, jam…” Shopping note Einstein wrote once? I guarantee he did write something like that, and she read it? Or the “pick up dry cleaning, ring plumber” note? No. So she hasn’t read every word he had ever written. So why say she had? Why include a demonstrable lie? Face it Dan, it makes Katherine Solomon less believable. If that were even possible.
And while we’re on that sort of putting your back up-type of thing. A challenge: Have you ever told anyone, you feel, or have been, ‘nurtured’ by something/anything? Ever? So, why do it? All it does is stop me in my tracks. Stop me reading. Make the reading disjointed. Interrupt the flow that there should be because this is a thriller. It’s supposed to have flow. I suppose he thinks a character who professes to be ‘nurtured’ by something or someone, is more rounded. But unfortunately, it’s only in the way of him being both an idiot and quite probably a piss-head idiot. More one dimensional. Flat. Dull. Face it, if anyone told me they felt nurtured, to my face, I’d laugh and point. You would too. You know you would.
So, the baddie goes to sort the scientist woman out. But he doesn’t drive in his car to meet her, this fiendish madman, he is “pulled onward by destiny’s gravity.” Groan! What is surely supposed to strike terror into our hearts, comes out like a comedy parody of a horror film; because he is, wait for it, “The Hand of the Mysteries.” You can almost hear the “duh, duh, durrrrh!” in the background. And anyway, this one is surely Silas from Da Vinci Code? With money, without the religion? And darker eyes?
Then, the document they want to see the whole of, that they can only find a censored copy of on the net. They can’t identify the IP number. It doesn’t exist. And even the brilliant computer expert can’t trace it. So they overpay a hacker, who tries everything, but gets nowhere. “His best hacking tools were entirely ineffective at breaking into the document or unmasking Trish’s mysterious IP address.” Clearly, the people behind the document do not want to be identified. At all. Ever…But, wait, didn’t our people ‘Google’ the original document? But never mind that. Clearly they do NOT want to be found. Then, the phone rings. “This is systems security for the Central Intelligence Agency. We would like to know why you are attempting to hack one of our classified databases.” “Ah! So THAT’S who it belongs to, why did we bother paying someone to find out who it was, when THEY will ring US?!” “What?” Says CIA person; “D’oh!”
What’s the rest of it actually about? Don’t worry about that, it’s not worth it. And the end, the supposed denouement, face it, even if you think I’m wrong, we’ve been led to think there will be a big reveal – is a huge fudge. I’m not even sure what it was and I’m writing this after just having read it. The reveal, like the book and the book after the reveal, just went on and on. And on. Until, I think, well, it was, or at least it could have been…ah, fuck it, I don’t care any more. Muddled, mixed up, no punch.
It’s clear that DB wanted to write an epic, a worthy follow up to Da Vinci Code. So, ”’Epic’, eh? that means long! Excellent!” And so, the story not only stops and starts, stretched thinner than a 50-year old’s comb-over, but comes to a grinding halt to be placed on life-support, padded out with all sorts of airy-fairy ‘scientific’ nonsense – that because it has appeared in the ‘real’ world and is mentioned in his foreword (or afterward, or wherever it was), attains some sort of credibility. ‘Noetics’? OK, it IS a thing, but if it needs to be explained at such length, by two ‘brilliant minds’ holding a conversation that isn’t actually a conversation, but is each lecturing the other, he knows it is a load of old fanny and my mind gores off to make a cup of coffee.
It’s tricky to see what Dan Brown wanted to do with The Lost Symbol. Apart from follow up a huge money spinner, with another (long) one. There is some commentary on the fundamental points of Christianity – all religion, in some cases – but a lot of it is buried away in what is a pointlessly over long book. The revelations (for those who hadn’t read Holy Blood, Holy Grail et al) in The Da Vinci Code, were much more up front and in your (especially if you were a Catholic) face. Here, the little nuggets – ‘Amen/Amun’ (though I can’t remember him mentioning Akhenaten for example), are much further below the surface. One does get the idea that Dan Brown may be an Atheist, he may be wanting to undermine religion(s) by showing their commonality – which would suggest he would welcome another controversy like Da Vici Code, partly to put his ideas over, partly to sell books of course. And is showing that you can pretty much find anything you want to look for in texts like the Bible. Either he’s very naive, or he’s very clever, slipping his ideas in under our radar. But does the average airport bookshopper care enough? About Freemasons, for example? Hasn’t all that been done enough already? While some of these ideas are pretty controversial, not least because they are logical, something religions never like, their below the radar buried-ness, suggests either he isn’t sure of the ideas, or doesn’t really know how to incorporate them into the suspense side of the story. As he did – admit it – to great effect with the Da Vinci Code. While that was a real page-turner, can’t put it down, runaway train – this decidedly is not. There were times when I had to keep reading, very, very occasionally because the story captured me, but mainly it was due to the short, choppy, chapter style. Which meant that I thought; “ok, I’ll give it one more chapter…oh, only two pages long, that’s not telling me anything – one more then…oh, three pages, well, the story might move on/go somewhere next time, so one more then…” etc.
One final thing that really irritated me, was a really shocking disregard for the First Nation peoples. The people who were in America before Washington and the other slave-owners decided they wanted a new land in which to own their slaves…He explains that The Library of Congress was “One of the first buildings in Washington to have electric lights, it literally shone like a beacon in the darkness of the New World.” ‘Darkness of the New World’? I bet the Native Americans would beg to differ there. “The founding fathers had envisioned America as a blank canvas, a fertile field on which the seeds of the mysteries could be sown” ‘Hello! We were here! It wasn’t a blank fucking canvas! There was already a very developed, well functioning civilisation here! We got crushed by the founding fucking fathers!’ As someone much later would say; “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters, Plymouth Rock landed on us!”
And why three stars if it’s so bad? One star because I managed to go all the way through. One star carried over from ‘Da Vinci Code.’ And it gets a full, whole star for having, on P27:
”Awesome!” Someone shouted.
Langdon rolled his eyes, wishing someone would ban that word.”
Quite right, as any sane, sentient being realises. The last fall-back of those unable to express themselves properly. And the only reason why it gets three and not two.