Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Booked Up: Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol'

SYMBOLS ALL AROUND USAs you may know, there is a very popular writer named Dan Brown, who is the author of a not-yet-long series of thrillers starring a Harvard professor. Of Brown's The Da Vinci Code, blogger-despising John Cheever daughter-in-law Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times that this was a "gleefully erudite" and "exhilaratingly brainy thriller." Of Brown's latest, she wrote: "he's bringing sexy back to a genre that had been left for dead." Ha ha, Janet Maslin! This newest book, The Lost Symbol, has already sold two million copies in the U.S., and, as of Tuesday, a week after release, half a million copies in the U.K., as well as 100,000 e-books through Amazon, which is the form in which I purchased it, so that I could read for myself this book that is, it turns out, actively hostile and underming to all of the tenets of Republican, conservative and Christian America.

Brown's Harvard professor hero Robert Langdon, now entering his late-mid-40s, and who looks just like Tom Hanks in my mind for no apparent reason, even though I believe in an earlier book Langdon is described as being somewhat Harrison Ford-like, is mildly famous for his culture pop history books on symbols. As The Lost Symbol begins, he is invited to Washington, D.C., by a friend, the head of the Smithsonian, to reprise a lecture he has previously given on Bookspan TV. "Bookspan TV" is the casual name for the highly-underwatched Book TV weekend programming of C-SPAN 2.

This is maybe the first book I have ever read that mentions C-SPAN.

Needless to say, Langdon of course hops on his friend's private jet to give the lecture, which does not exist, the lecture, I mean, not the plane, which totally exists: the lecture, it is a fakeout by a devious character, and mysteries and drama ensue! Things must be figured out! But humankind, for the most part, has become too intellectually lazy to do any figuring. "'Google' is not a synonym for 'research'," Langdon nearly yells at someone at one point. And later, a character makes fun of someone's "Wiki-wisdom," in the course of making fun of people who think the world will end in 2012.

In the course of his adventures, Langdon must contact his book publisher, who is unpleasantly desperate for a manuscript. "Book publishing would be so much easier without the authors," thinks this editor.

What is this literate, witty, informed piece of delightful American cultural criticism I am reading?

Okay it has some writer-ticks that are irritating as all get-out. As a scifi reader, I am extremely forgiving of such, though they are pushing it, and I will leave it to everyone else to harp about the constant italics and the annoying shape and the insanely short chapters and the cliffhangerism and also the parts where women are putting their hands in to boiling pots of water to pick things up.

But professional readers have also been dismissive that the book includes, as par for the course, a lady love interest who becomes entangled in the mysteries. "Once again, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to the scene of a gruesome attack, joins forces with an attractive and erudite love interest, and speeds around a world capital chasing clues, solving puzzles, and risking his life while dropping cocktail parties' worth of scholarly minutiae" is how Entertainment Weekly describes the book. What those critics seemed to have breezed past is that said love interest is fifty years old. (Or, as Brown would put it: She is fifty years old.) Let us go and name the lady love interests of pop culture books who are fifty. (Or heroines even. Even Stella was only "forty-fucking-two.")

And? Throughout the book, various characters-and not the villains-trash contemporary American Christians:

"I'm sorry, but I don't know any Christians who consider themselves God's equal."

"Of course not," Bellamy said, his tone hardening. "Because most Christians want it both ways. They want to be able to proudly declare they are believers in the BIble and yet simply ignore those parts they find too difficult or too inconvenient to believe."

Those are the good guys talking. And (with ellipses in the original):

"Robert, you and I both know that the ancients would be horrified if they saw how their teachings had been perverted… how religion has established itself as a tollbooth to heaven… how warriors march into battle believing God favors their cause."

And, in a particularly brutal, non-dialogue passage:

From the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to American politics-the name Jesus had been hijacked in all kinds of power struggles. Since the beginning of time, the ignorant had always screamed the loudest, herding the unsuspecting masses and forcing them to do their bidding. They defended their worldly desires by citing Scripture they did not understand. They celebrated their intolerance as proof of their own convictions. Now, after all these years, mankind had finally managed to utterly erode everything that had once been so beautiful about Jesus.

Also around the edges of the book are a greedy, selfish heir who pals around with the "celebrati" and a friendly Arab named Omar, and a tribute to the New York Public Library. Also Leibniz and Daniel Boulud are both name-checked. Oh and there is a section that details CIA interrogation techniques and how they are a terrible torture. And over and over again, it creates an equivalency between the Koran, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. How-wait, not how, why-is America's fastest-selling adult-fiction book writer so blasphemous in a country where everyone must kowtow to Christian mania?

30 Comments / Post A Comment

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

I thought Justin Timberlake brought sexy back a few years ago.

Janet Maslin went from Jon Landau to Benjamin Cheever and Pleasantville? Sad.

Oh, and I liked your review. Maybe you convinced me to give the book a try. Maybe not. We'll see.

Baboleen (#1,430)

Think of all the 50 year old actresses who will angle for the love interest role. Have the film rights been sold?

Rod T (#33)

Looking your comment to mine following, I can tell that it took me 8 minutes to leave my oh-so-important comment. And several minutes to type this because I have been so busy with work. This makes me sad. I want to fully form thoughts!!!!!!!!!!!

GiovanniGF (#224)

It sounds like something a really gifted 19 year old would write.

HiredGoons (#603)

It's like The Hardy Boys, except not fun.

Rod T (#33)

PREDICTION: 50-year old love interest in movie to be played by Mandy Moore.

HiredGoons (#603)

Robert Anton Wilson is spinning in his grave(?)

JaguarPaw (#312)

Brown's books are a great stepping stone for readers who feel intellectual enough to graduate from Harry Potter. In between the two rests Michael Creighton.

JaguarPaw (#312)


ejcsanfran (#489)

Actually, it's spelled D-A-N-I-E-L-L-E S-T-E-E-L.

LondonLee (#922)

Still wrong

JaguarPaw (#312)

Sigh. He doesn't deserve it anyway.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Christ, awfully dismissive of people who read, no? What is it, Harvard Classics or you might as well be watching Two and Half Men? I mean, I certainly don't spend my summer curled up with Finnegan's Wake or anything.

Rw (#1,458)

I've an ex who makes a very solid case for Chrichton being a misogynist, at least from the standpoint of his early and not so early Novels.

Mindpowered (#948)

Dan Brown is to intellectual as Finnegans Wake is to readable.

HiredGoons (#603)

but… but Finnegan's Wake is a diff… oh, I see.

Mindpowered (#948)

Talk about "draining a gugglet of obvious adamale"

KenWheaton (#401)

"the ancients would be horrified if they saw how their teachings had been perverted… how religion has established itself as a tollbooth to heaven… how warriors march into battle believing God favors their cause."

Someone doesn't know much about how the ancients used religion does he? Didn't they ALWAYS march into battle believing God favored their cause? Hell, didn't many of them march into battle because some God told them to?

Hahaha. Dan Brown's dumb. I feel smugly superior.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Damnit. I was going to speak to "how warriors march into battle believing God favors their cause" too. So wrong. But yes. I mean, sure, if by "the ancients" he means the first however many guys laid down the respective religions, then, maybe. But within 10 minutes all those religions were being used for war. From Europe to the Chinese Tai Pings.

And yeah, seems to be a feel-superior-to-dan-brown-and-his-readers kid of day.

Meeg (#309)

And doesn't this book mention the Nousphere and Durer's woodprints?

Stop taking things I'm interested in and putting them in your books, Brown!

Abe Sauer (#148)

Choire, great review. I would say the incongruity between the millions who will buy (if not read) Brown and his message is really kin to the red-hot testosteroned love of war films that are really supposed to be anti-war films.

Dan Brown's undisguised hostility to religion is the ONLY redeeming factor of his writing.

I suspect he does view himself as subversive in a way, and successfully so, but it's a subversiveness that's about as sophisticated as putting elephant dung on a painting of the "Madonna".

sfauthor (#1,710)

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

Kataphraktos (#226)

These books are very poorly written. The story lines are laughable. The few pages of Harry Potter I've consumed show vastly superior storytelling and writing abilities – and that's FUCKING HARRY POTTER.

That someone employed by the New York Times would get past the fifth page without throwing it against a wall is shameful. Navel-gazing as journalism, a.k.a. if the 50-year-old heroine can get herself a Tom Hanks, maybe I can, too. So, you know, journalistic fiat by twat. I hope Cronkite rises from his grave as a well-spoken zombie and eats all their brains (a light lunch, as it were).

Yes, this makes me angry.


el fay (#1,727)

Have any of you read a recent European import called The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie? (Or, as I like to call it: Mary Sue and the Super Friends v. the Ugly Americans.) It's been compared to The Da Vinci Code for marketing purposes, since they're both a part of that "religious conspiracy" genre. Here is a sample passage;

"Simon, and Grace, and Calvin, I now realize, [that] you and I, and everyone like us, should shout from the rooftops about these people's terrifying influence on politics, and laws, and the freedom of our choices. No single religion has a monopoly on bigoted fundamentalism. In Revelation, Jesus is the hero with a 'sword in his mouth' – and I hope we can mount a very effective counteroffensive with our own words."

The best part is when the main villain, an American ultra-conservative clearly based on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (I guess no one told Hardie that one is dead and the other largely irrelevant), is standing somewhere in the Middle East, making a grandiose speech about valleys being three-feet deep in blood when Armageddon comes and Jesus returns to wreak havoc on non-believers. This "rich Texan" stereotype then makes a really awkward, tacked-on comment about not having to worry about global warming then! Christ Almighty, it's like the most hyperbolic satire of the Republican party ever written.

And it's a shame, really, because The Rose Labyrinth had the potential to be so much better than anything Dan Brown could ever come out with. Hardie's dialogue and characterization need some work (the protagonist in particular was way too perfect) but she's great at setting the scene and evoking mood and atmosphere. There's also an extremely well-done death scene towards the beginning. Publishing companies have editors, folks. USE THEM.

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