Philip Hensher

Too much information | 23 September 2009

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

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The Lost Symbol

Dan Brown

Transworld, pp. 448, £

Freemasons have been getting steadily less glamorous since their apotheosis in The Magic Flute. Nowadays, one thinks of them in connection with short-sleeved, polyester shirt-and-tie sets, pens in the top pocket, sock-suspenders and the expression ‘My lady wife’. I honestly can’t see them guarding the secrets of the universe. Dan Brown’s new conspiracy theory cosmic thriller, portraying freemasonry as a wise secret sect, starts at a considerable disadvantage. Ends there, too.

Robert Langdon — was there ever a dimmer name for an action hero? — is lured away from his cryptological studies by an invitation from a wise old acquaintance, Peter Solomon, in Washington. Or so it seems; because when Langdon turns up at the lecture theatre, in one of Washington’s most prestigious venues, as Brown would put it, there is no one there. Instead, there is Solomon’s hand, cut off and newly tattooed with occult symbols, stuck on a spike and pointing upwards at the official frescoes. (They bear a secret meaning, of course).

Brown’s The Da Vinci Code itchily chased around continents in search of enlightenment. This one stays very much where it is, and stolidly pursues hidden chambers, hollowed-out obelisks and secret stairwells within the same square mile of Washington DC. It seems a waste of a setting not to make any serious use of politics here, particularly when secret societies and freemasonry are in the picture. This may be the very first novel set in Washington DC without a villainous part for the British ambassador.

But Brown’s attention is elsewhere, largely on writing paragraphs which the DC tourist board can reproduce unamended, and perhaps already has. Brown has no gift for the evocation of place, and I wonder how much of the prose he has read in recent years has been written by estate agents. He certainly seems very keen on square-footage. ‘The Capitol’s massive footprint measures more than 750 feet in length and 350 feet deep.’ Two pages later, ‘The museum is a massive, zigzag-shaped edifice constructed of five interconnected pods … a six-hundred-thousand square feet alien world.’ Another couple of pages later, ‘The Capitol Visitor Center … reportedly provided over a half-million square feet of space for exhibits, restaurants, and meeting halls.’ By page 85, he is still at it: ‘The Apotheosis of Washington — a 4,664-square-foot fresco that covers the canopy of the Capitol Rotunda — was completed in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi.’

Never, I would guess, has a novel purporting to be a thriller contained so many staggeringly dull paragraphs. Some of them, strangely enough, are stuck in randomly in the middle of chases, or just as a character is about to open a door, or even in the middle of an urgent conversation. Their purpose is to demonstrate solid research, though, I must say, the writer who failed to notice, in the title of his previous novel, what the artist, Leonardo, is customarily called is going to have to work hard to inspire our confidence. Just as Langdon is escaping, pursued by a helicopter, the action is interrupted with the information that

Cathedral College is an elegant, castle- like edifice, located adjacent to the National Cathedral. The College of Preachers, as it was originally envisioned by the first Episcopal bishop of Washington, was founded to provide ongoing education for clergy after their ordination. Today, the college offers a wide variety of programs on theology, global justice, healing and spirituality.

(Type ‘envisioned by the first Episcopal bishop of Washington’ into Google: you will never in future have to ask Brown where he gets his ideas from). The dullness, which I found all-enveloping, comes from Brown’s eagerness to press forward, with no respect for plausibility or the English language. Characters are always giving each other great chunks of abstract exposition, parcelled out arbitrarily. This, amazingly, is supposed to be a man talking to his sister in private:

Entanglement was at the core of primeval beliefs. Its names are as old as history itself: Dharmakaya, Tao, Brahman. In fact, man’s oldest spiritual quest was to perceive his own entanglement, to sense his own interconnection with all things.

Brown is not writing for educated or experienced readers. You can tell that by the way he feels it necessary to indicate style indirect libre by placing it in italics. But I do think readers of any sort deserve better than this. His attempts at characterisation never go much beyond ‘Systems security specialist, Mark Zoubianis, had always prided himself on his ability to multi-task.’ The feminine sidekick is absolutely non-existent, just supplying first her brother, then that boring Langdon, with useful feedlines, and not even Brown has the nerve to attempt a romantic entanglement between her and the hero. Perhaps he saw how implausible it would be, after having spent so much time describing the rudimentary but pumped-up villain: ‘The towering young man … his massive body … his muscular legs … his powerful chest … his massive sex organ … this heavy shaft of flesh .…’

The plot, naturally, is all to do with the concealment of wisdom within sacred texts, and as it unfolds, it becomes first moronic and then somewhat offensive. Moronic, because it seems to believe that wisdom and knowledge are things which are acquired by placing a bit of gold on top of a bit of stone, and then wiping off some wax. Brown’s heroes remind me of Hardy’s Jude, who thought that you could understand Greek if you cracked a simple code in the dons’ safekeeping:

Don’t you see? These [Biblical phrases] are code words, Robert. ‘Temple’ is code for body. ‘Heaven’ is code for mind. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is your spine. And ‘Manna’ is this rare brain secretion.

Not just moronic, but offensive, because the whole historical point of Christianity was that it celebrated its rites entirely openly, unlike any other religion to that point. The huge enlightenment to come, trailed by Brown, doesn’t convince, because he can’t really imagine what it would be, apart from some previously secret beliefs being made generally available. What that would mean, apart from people saying ‘With my temple, I thee worship’ at wedding ceremonies, Brown cannot limn.

This is taking a bit of fluff all too seriously, but tales of conspiracy are worrying when they become as massively popular as Brown’s stories have done. God knows how many of his readers think there might be some truth in any of this. But even if there were none, it is depressing to see the point to which the bestseller as a form has sunk. Vintage have recently reissued all of Nevil Shute, and to read a hugely popular book of 50 years ago next to The Lost Symbol is to witness a painful decline in quality and sheer class. A novelist like Brown would never risk an extended set-piece like the motor race in On the Beach, or the details of capital investment in A Town Called Alice. Or, come to that, the thrillingly extended card game in the first part of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. These are novels which, though aiming at popularity, respected their readers and were possessed of a decent level of craft. Nowadays, we are reduced in our thrill-seeking endeavours to listening to Dan Brown, whose idea of giving a reader a good time is droning:

Franklin Square is located in the northwest quadrant of downtown Washington, bordered by K and Thirteenth streets. It is home to many historic buildings.