The Lost Symbol
The new book from the author of “Da Vinci Code”
The book is on display in the Library from 18th Sept. to 10th Oct. 2009
Read a comment on the book appeared on the New Yorker
Read All About It
In hard times, we look to the single savior, the knight in shining armor. Or knights: the Beatles, forty years on, have reappeared, walking across the same old London road, to rescue what’s left of the record industry. At the same moment, the publishing industry, still afloat but listing, turns to the less charismatic but crafty eye of the writer Dan Brown to sail it back to safety. Brown’s long occult-mystery novels, featuring the intrepid Dr. Robert Langdon, a tenured Harvard professor of something called symbology—a field unknown to both Harvard and spell-check (try it)—are the welcome if improbable million-and-beyond best-sellers of our time, with the latest episode, “The Lost Symbol,” now upon us. The new book is, as every speed-reading reviewer has noted, the same package as before—the wise if wooden professor, the cagey babe-scientist, the oft-naked assassin, and the ancient conspiracy newly brought to life in familiar tourist destinations, this time in Washington, D.C., rather than Paris, and turning on elusive Masonic mystics, rather than secretive Merovingian dynasts. But what, exactly, is inside the package? What spell does it cast and how does it cast it? Books are not so widely read without a reason. Surely future historians will look to Brown as an index of What We Were Really Thinking, and, turning the dense and loaded pages of his books, they may well ask, This they read for fun?
It’s easy to pastiche Brown’s prose, with its infectious italics (“What the hell is going on?!”) and its action-prodding, single-sentence paragraphs. (“Langdon stared in horror.”) The clichés line up outside the dust jacket and are whisked in pairs to a table down front: “In the heat of the moment, Capitol police officer Nuñez had seen no option but to help the Capitol Architect and Robert Langdon escape. Now, however, back in the basement police headquarters, Nuñez could see the storm clouds gathering fast.” Add Brown’s habit of inventing where no invention is needed—there are no departments of “symbology,” but there are departments of semiotics, where Langdon would fit right in—and you have a surface less commercially calculated than genuinely eccentric.
And well meaning. “The Lost Symbol”—with all its ritual murders and fearsome amputations and “My God!”s around every margin—is an amazingly nice book. The text regularly lurches to a stop, with the generosity of a third-grade teacher on a class museum outing, offering bits of research and history. Much of it is bogus, to be sure—though modern Masonry borrowed some oogah-boogah from the Egyptian past, it was an Enlightenment club, whose greatest product was “The Magic Flute,” and which was about as sinister, and secretly controlled about as many governments, as the Royal Order of Raccoons in “The Honeymooners.” But Brown is having fun. And the book is full of activities; there’s more to do with a pencil and safety scissors than in any Highlights for Children. At a crucial moment in the story, we even have a magic square, one of those puzzles, beloved of twelve-year-old boys, in which every row and column adds up to the same number. (The mysteries themselves, however, are not very mysterious: if you can’t figure out what the tall, thin, pyramid-capped, Masonic-looking monument in Washington to which this story is strangely tending might be, then you are slower on the uptake than most, though swifter than Langdon.)
The connection to the twelve-year-old boy might be the key. Brown’s writing resembles less the adult best-sellers of the past, which popularized high literary forms—“Gone with the Wind” was a kind of kitsch Tolstoy—than the adventure stories that were once the staple of adolescent literature. Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys were always in the midst of compelling conspiracies; there was always a code that had to be cracked, and ancient Asian priests and ancient Asian cults invading their cozy American worlds.
And that may be the secret of Brown’s appeal: his books are as sweet-tempered as they are secret-minded. Langdon exposes horrible conspiracies, but it turns out that, with the exception of a few homicidal hotheads, who have maybe let the thing run away with them, decent, well-intended guys run even the weirdest cabals. Brown’s repeated point is not that we are mired in ancient conspiracies but that ancient conspiracies anticipate modern opinions. What is “coded” in “The Da Vinci Code” is that the ancient Christians were modern feminists; Jesus was a loving husband who deferred to the wisdom of his wife, Mary Magdalene, the Hillary Clinton of Galilee. When we come to the end of this new book, we discover that what the Masons were really practicing was a neat kind of cognitive science. The old codes of the pyramid are merely the newest discoveries of psychology, a thought that turns the text once again toward italics: “ ‘The Bible, like many ancient texts, is a detailed exposition of the most sophisticated machine ever created. . . the human mind.’ She sighed.”
Conspiracies invoked in a mode essentially cheerful, the occult revealed to be engagingly open-minded: Brown’s secret turns out to be the same as Oprah’s beloved “Secret”—you can have it all. Ancient myth and modern science, weird conspiracies and a job at Harvard—not to mention the affection of the heroine. This is the new conspiratorial normal.
The trouble comes not only when you recall real history but when you look around: the conspiracy theories out there today—the ones about the socialist fascists who are coming to get you at the behest of the alien President—are not cute. The old ones weren’t, either. Real anti-Masonic paranoia was a bad business, intertwined with the ugliest politics in European history. Fear and hatred underlie conspiracy theories; they always have. You can draw them away from reality, but you can’t really drain them of rage. There’s maybe something worrying about so many millions of readers entertaining a paranoia on the page that was, in its time, as crazy as the paranoia in the country today. As that twelve-year-old’s mom used to say, it’s all a lot of fun until somebody cries. ♦
Courtesy: The New Yorker
Filed under: Book of the week, Dan Brown, Lost symbol