Friday 16 October 2009

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

I've recently finished reading Dan Brown's latest epic, assured of massive sales by the phenomenal success of his previous book, The Da Vinci Code. I read TDVC when it first came out, before all of the public furore, and while I didn't think much of the author's writing style I was intrigued by the plot. This was obviously a mixture of fact and fiction and had me guessing as to which was which. It seems it had the author guessing as well, since he took literally a fictional source, but that didn't hurt sales.

The Lost Symbol has an entirely different plot, but it's basically more of the same. It once again features Robert Langdon as the resourceful, code-breaking professor hero. This time the action is more intense and confined, taking place within a small area of Washington DC over a period of just ten hours (which is almost as long as it takes to read the 500 page book). The focus of the plot has shifted away from the Roman Catholic Church and on to Freemasonry. Brown has obviously researched the Masons, their beliefs and rituals, in great depth, but I don't have the knowledge to judge whether his sources are more accurate this time.

The stylistic faults of Brown's other books remain. The writing is humourless and clunky with no subtlety or wit, the characters cartoonish, their relationships sketchy, the plot ludicrous. Finally, the conclusion is weak: the plot builds up a picture of deep secrets and mysterious but devastating consequences if they are revealed, but it all turns out to be a big fuss over nothing. However, the story gripped me sufficiently to keep me turning the pages and I read the last half of the book in one straight session, finishing in the early hours of the morning. That is something which I rarely do, so the story obviously has a strong appeal. What exactly is it?

The arcane "knowledge" which appears to fill the book is certainly an important part of it. There is the strong sense (not necessarily valid, as TDVC demonstrated) of being presented with a huge amount of material which allows the reader to get inside a secret world. He has also packed the book with those esoteric "can that be true?" nuggets, such as that the Christian practice of concluding a prayer with "Amen" actually derives from the worship of Amon, the Egyptian sun god (according to the Wiki entry on "amen", not true). By itself, this would be intriguing but not sufficient. What makes Brown's books so successful is that this material is wrapped up in a driving, relentless narrative which is all-action from start to finish, with more twists and turns than I could keep track of (including a real surprise close to the end).

Basically, to enjoy this book you need to park your critical faculties for the duration and just go with the flow. It will never win any literary prizes but it would be a good distraction on a long flight.


Bill Garthright said...

I don't know, Tony. After The Da Vinci Code, I don't think I'll read another book by Dan Brown. I thought the idea was great, but the execution was terrible. I'm just shocked that it was such a best-seller.

Years ago, I remember reading that Mario Puzo set out to deliberately write a "best-seller" with his book The Godfather. But I could understand how that book succeeded. The Da Vinci Code certainly had the right topic, with the objections of the Catholic Church greatly helping sales,... but I thought the writing itself was terrible.

Oh, well, I tend to feel this way about many, if not most, "best-sellers."

Anthony G Williams said...

I can understand that, Bill, but I'm prepared to tolerate poor writing (up to a point) if the story is intriguing enough.

CLFagan said...

I agree with you about the book Lost Symbol, but i do feel he did his research, and I know how hard that can be. I just wrote my first novel, Lightning Stikes the Colonies, a historical novel with a time-traveler twist - set in pre-revolutionary America and although I think of myself as a history buff,I did over two years of research for the book. It not as wordy as Brown and not as heavy either but since you said you like a little humor, maybe you could read it and review it for me.