Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

In the end, even Agent Scully believed most of the stuff Agent Mulder believed. And that was about UFOs, aliens, and other weird things. Here, in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, Robert Langdon plays the skeptic over and over again, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Kind of reminds me of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Where to begin? How about some background between Dan Brown and I. The Da Vinci Code was my introduction to Robert Langdon and I enjoyed the book pretty well. I quickly read Angels and Demons and, frankly, liked it better. Recently, when Langdon’s third adventure was announced, I was happy and knew that I’d read it. I also knew Brown faced his own personal Kobayashi Maru test, a no-win situation: how the hell does he follow-up The Da Vinci Code?

Not all that well, truth be told. The Lost Symbol is marketed as a thriller. Okay, I’m good with that. But with that tag, certain things are expected: guns, chases, near misses, danger, pulse-pounding excitement. You are geared to expect these things to happen relatively rapidly in the course of the novel. Earlier this year, I read Jeff Abbott’s Trust Me and boy did it fit these expectations well. I could not put the book down. With Brown’s book, in the early going, there was a couple of nights when I was pondering “do I sleep or read more?” Sleep won, more than once. Don’t get me wrong, I can deal with slow-burn books (wrote one myself) but at least turn up the heat sometime in the first forty chapters, or one hundred fifty pages. I’m not kidding: it took forty-one chapters for the running to start.

As Brown would have Langdon think, What the hell?

Langdon is summoned to Washington, DC, to give a lecture. Instead of a room full of people, he finds the severed hand of his friend, Peter Solomon. The hand is positioned in such a way that it acts as an invitation to the chase. Langdon receives a call from a mysterious (and whispery, in the audio version) person: break the code and save Peter’s life.

This can’t be happening.

Yes, Langdon, it can and it is. So shut up and deal with it.

I can’t. It’s some lunatic who thinks there’s a pyramid hidden underground. He’s crazy.

What's crazy is the number of times Langdon thinks the entire situation is weird, crazy, or insane. This from the guy who uncovered the "truth" about Jesus's marriage.

When Inoue Sato, from the CIA’s Office of Security, shows up, Langdon’s more worried about Peter’s safety than helping her. He never once stops to wonder “hey, Peter’s kidnapping and Sato’s national security emergency might just be related. Come on, man! You’re supposed to be smart. All he does is insist the kidnapper is insane and he, Langdon, just wants to help poor Peter.

Langdon’s perception—of himself, of the thing the kidnapper wants, of the legends and the mysteries surrounding it all—is out of whack. Like Agent Scully at the beginning of “The X-Files,” Langdon believes nothing. It takes Sato to lay it out for him as only a government agent can and he’s still a reluctant hero. He just doesn't believe. Even at the end, when The Truth is revealed, the dude is a skeptic. Whatever.

Frankly, at times, I didn’t care if Langdon broke the codes and the symbols or not. I was not emotionally invested in the story. Even the female character, Katherine Solomon, Peter’s younger sister and the kidnapper’s second target, is there to try an enliven a stale plot. It’s hinted that Langdon and Katherine had some sort of feelings in the past but there is no spark at all.

Are you sure? What about the scene where…

Shut up, Langdon. This is my review.

The villain is a quintessential villain from any thriller: very intelligent, on top of his game, supremely confident, and dull. I figured out who it was long, long, LONG before the characters did. Even so, I would have expected any of them to catch on earlier than they did. When the big reveal happened, I’ll admit the scene played out nicely but, come on. Did they not even suspect?

The pace of the book is well done. Yeah, it’s often tedious and filled with way too many “mini lectures” and “as you know, Bob” moments. But Brown knows how to space out the cliffhangers. In these past few months, I’ve read the first three Tarzan books and have ingrained in my head Edgar Rice Burroughs’ style. Dan Brown writes the same way. Hey, that’s not bad, mind you, as long as you know what The Lost Symbol is: pulp fiction. It’s not literary in the slightest not does it pretend to be, despite the subject matter. It’s a page-turner, even if the only cliffhanger is the answer to a mini lecture.

Like a politician who doesn’t know when to get off the stage, the action climax of the story occurs fifty pages from the book’s end. Fifty pages of tedium that you have to wade through for what?

An intellectual climax. The true meaning of the book.

That may be what you think, Langdon, but it’s just a bunch of fruitless nothingness that did very little to make the ending anywhere near the emotional resonance Brown wanted.

Am I glad I read it? Sure, I guess. I would have gotten around to it eventually. Will I read the next Dan Brown book? Almost certainly. I’ll probably do as I did here: check it out from the library and listen to the audio.

Like I mentioned earlier, Brown was in a no-win situation. Like the fourth Indiana Jones movie, there was just no way to live up to the expectations that had built up steam for the six years since The Da Vinci Code exploded on the world. All the Da Vinci Code imitators had cluttered the market, making Brown’s story merely one among many as opposed to the one that started it all.

He’ll come back, just like the rock musician Sting does. After every fun album (Nothing Like the Sun, for example), Sting gets all intellectual and tries too hard. The resulting record (The Soul Cages), while good, is never as good as the one before it or the one after it (Ten Sumner’s Tales). In addition, the one after it is judged to be great mostly because the bar had been reset so low that just about anything would be better.

I think that’s where Brown finds himself now. For every overnight success, there is often a sophomore slump. It doesn’t matter if the artist or writer had written other books prior to Becoming Famous. For all intents and purposes, The Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown’s first book. The Lost Symbol is his sophomore slump. I’m looking forward to the rebound book, the one that’ll knock the socks off of everyone because they didn’t see it coming.


Dave White said...

I'm only 150 pages in, but I was under the impression that Langdon didn't want to help the CIA lady because he was afraid of both heights and was claustrophobic. He was just covering his fear saying he was worried about Peter.

Steve Weddle said...

Nicely done, Scott. I haven't gotten to the book yet, despite my getting it on the first day out.

As someone who has read or heard all of Dan Brown's books, I'm like you in the sense that I'll check out what he does.

Your comparing Dan Brown to Sting makes me think of Tracy Chapman. Great first album. Not such a great second one. Then the third one worked and she's been doing solid work since then. So, following the sophomore slump, artists are "written off" and have a chance to get it together for the third. I don't know what to call this--the 'junior rebound' doesn't sound right.

And even though Dan Brown has a few other books before this one, since TDVC was the first one people noticed, I see your point there and agree with you. Doesn't really matter if your first book/album goes unnoticed. You really don't have anything to "slump" from in that case.

Randy Johnson said...

Nothing you said makes me want to rush right out and get this one. I read The Da Vinci Code first, then Angels & Demons, followed by Deception Point and Digital Fortress.

I wish I'd stopped with Da Vinci Code.

I quickly noticed how easy it was to figure out who the villain driving the plot was and how thick-headed Langdon, or any of the other heroes, seemed to be.

The four novels all seemed to be variations on the same plot, the only difference being in two of them, the villain goes missing halfway through the book, and is presumed dead, until he turns up for the final showdown at the end. Of course, we're not supposed to know he's the villain, but it's -just-to-easy-to-figure-out.

Charles Gramlich said...

I read The Da Vinci Code but haven't been compelled to read anything else by him. I'm probably not going to read this one.

Barrie said...

I think I'll still read it. But it's good to have a sense of what to expect going in. Thank you for this review.

Perplexio said...

Dan Brown has always come across like a watered down Ken Follett.

He's a bit too predictable and quite overrated as an author.

Your review further confirms that. Thank you immensely for saving me the hours I'll not be spending reading any more of his books. :-)