The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2009, 509 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-50422-5

Six years after the release of The Da Vinci Code (surely you’ve heard of it?), Dan Brown has a brand-new novel in store: The Lost Symbol.  The good and bad news are, indeed, the same: It’s an almost identical reading experience.

There are a few differences between Brown’s latest novel and its predecessors, but not that many.  Consider this: Robert Langdon runs around a world-class city with a beautiful scientist, piecing together historical clues to avert a terrible event while trying to outwit a spiritually-motivated antagonist with a penchant for self-mutilation.  Familiar?  Yes.  Good enough for a third go-around?  Well, why not?

This time, “Symbologist” (aka; trivia-master) Robert Langdon is called to Washington, where he gets to talk masonry with a woman studying pseudo-sciences.  They race around and under official buildings, survive attempts on their lives and spend half a day citing encyclopedia snippets at each other.  Surprisingly enough, it’s fun: While The Lost Symbol is a bit too familiar to create the same enthralling feeling as its predecessor, its accumulation of cheap stock thriller situations, short cliffhanging chapters, plausible-sounding details and compelling imagery makes it hard to stop reading.  It’s not refined but it’s got the essence of genre fiction entertainment.  The writing is even a bit better than in the previous books… or at least not quite as awful.

The Lost Symbol even shows that Brown can have a sense of humor about himself: Early on, he takes potshots at the controversy about his previous novel (“My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused!” [P.8]), his image (“He was wearing the usual charcoal turtleneck.” [P.8]) and, later on, editors complaining about the lateness of his novel (“You owe me a manuscript. [P.176]).  While the suspense is usually too talky to be gripping, there are at least two memorable sequences in the book, one taking place in a completely dark hangar, and the other one pushing the whole “Character’s dead.  Dead-dead-dead.” shtick as far as it can go, and then a little bit further for good measure.  Cheap twists abound, although Brown does manage to do a few interesting things with parallel storytelling at times.

Sadly, The Lost Symbol occasionally gets muddled on the shoals of yadda-yadda pseudoscience discredited back in the seventies but revived today as “noetic science” thanks to quantium jargon.  Brown may swear up and down that all the science in his book is true, but we know better.  (As a computer specialist, I’m usually disappointed whenever Brown discusses computers, and this novel has its share of IT nonsense as well.)  The pseudo-science, thankfully, doesn’t really affect the major plot lines of the book, but it’s a distracting-enough subplot that the novel could have dispensed with.

Ironically, it almost takes mental muscles shaped by science-fiction to truly appreciate what Brown is attempting in the last tenth of the novel.  What he frequently does well (and what many imitators often forget) is to present a series of conceptual breakthroughs, big and small, that reveal the true shape of the world to protagonists and readers alike.  This is rarely as obvious as in the last fifty pages of The Lost Symbol: Once past the final action climax, the main plotline of the novel has been wrapped up with a few chapters still left to go.  It’s all over but for a few more revelations, which may be more conceptually important to Brown than the end of the thriller plot-line: The novel concludes on a pair of scenes meant to evoke a strong sense of wonder, and science-fiction readers will have been trained to respond well to such revelations.

As for everyone else, well, the old saw hold true: “If you liked The Da Vinci Code, then…” yes, you’re going to like The Lost Symbol.  Conversely, those who hated Brown’s previous novels won’t be seduced by this one.  It is what it is, and if the same mixture of elements could have been quite a bit more interesting in better hands, it does manage to outdo many of the so-called “Da Vinci clones” in delivering the mixture of trivia, thrills, nonsense and fast pacing that we’ve come to expect from Brown.  It may be late in coming, but it does deliver.

(Amateur puzzle-solvers will be happy to note that the US dust jacket sports at least four puzzles, and a few Easter Eggs.  I wasted an enjoyable thirty minutes solving two puzzles before rushing to read the solutions on-line.  As for the Easter Eggs, one of them will make you feel better about the recent loss of the traditional Doubleday “Anchor” logo.)

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