“The Lost Symbol” Review (somewhat) proper

I don’t usually catch the bus from Downtown Auckland to Takapuna. I’m telling you this to get a few paragraphs in between your beginning to read the review1 and my giving away the end of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”

Anyway, I don’t usually catch that bus. Due to my flight into Auckland being delayed and my need to get to Bayswater to feed my Mother’s cats, I had to get a bus to Takapuna and then take a bus to Belmont. The trip was horrible, but that is another matter. No, the important part is that whilst I was on the bus I could not help but overhear four young adults discussing “The Lost Symbol,” and the way they talked about it, you’d think the book was a work of non-fiction rather than the tripe that it clearly is.

There are two purposes to a book review, I feel. One is to tell you whether it is worth your while to read the book being reviewed; the other is to tell you why I think you should or should not read the book being reviewed. I’ve just told you the book is tripe; I shan’t back down on that. It is slow, almost glacial (which is a cliched way to pout it, but Dan Brown is pure cliche).

“The Lost Symbol” is not a good book. It is, at the very most, adequately written, which is as damning with faint praise as you can get, and the plot, lifted very much from Dan Brown’s earlier (and better) work “Angels and Demons,” lacks power and punch.

Yet, no matter what I write here, it is unlikely that it will change whether or not you read this book.

So…

The Secret the Freemasons have hidden for the past umpteen years is the Bible.

Well, except for that. By revealing the ‘Lost Symbol’ of “The Lost Symbol” I can, at least, make you less inclined to bother.

In “Angels and Demons” there was no real central conceit, no mystic mumbo-jumbo, only an elaborate disinformation campaign run by one man to make the Catholic Church think an ancient (and fictitious) enemy is once again on the move. In “The Da Vinci Code” the conceit is, at least, interesting; what if the central story about the Christian Messiah had been tampered with. Both of these plot twists are surprising and work; the former because it is startling and the latter because, whether you believe it or not, it does pose a perfectly good question, “What if everything you thought you knew about Christ was wrong?”

In “The Lost Symbol” it turns out the Masons are hiding the Bible from us.

Not a special Bible, mind. Not a radical translation or a special unexpurgated version, no, this is the book you can buy from the same bookseller where you picked up “The Lost Symbol.”

It’s quite a stunningly banal secret in a stunningly banal book.

The plot of “The Lost Symbol” is the usual Dan Brown story; Robert Langdon, an academic who specialises in occult symbology, is summoned to Washington, D.C., where he gets caught up in a series of art-related puzzles relating to an esoteric order hiding an ancient secret. He is opposed by a violent assassin with issues and, about halfway through the book, Langdon gets an info dump by someone with a physical defect.

Which leads up to the shocking revel that the ‘Lost Symbol’ of “The Lost Symbol” is the Bible.

I cannot repeat this enough.

It is a little hard to review a book with a central conceit this slight. It feels like “The Lost Symbol” was written purely as an apology for “The Da Vinci Code.” Brown did seem legitimately surprised by just how vitriolic some of his opponents became when he suggested, in a work or fiction, that Jesus had children. His opponents were not literary critics or the historians; their criticisms were swept carefully away because, after all, “The Da Vinci Code” was just a novel. No, Brown seemed surprised by how seriously people took his fiction.

“The Lost Symbol” addresses the balance, so to speak, by making the central message of Christianity important. Sure, maybe Langdon did uncover a bloodline of Christ, but so what, “The Lost Symbol” cries; what is of central importance is the message of Christianity, not whether someone had children two thousand years ago.

That, in itself, is a good point, even if you aren’t sympathetic to Christianity itself. Brown, however, can’t make the story stick; when Langdon is confronted with the secret of the Freemasons he finds it hard to accept it. Indeed, I’d expect most readers to treat the reveal likewise; surely, Langdon and the reader would think, surely this is just another puzzle, the answer to which will reveal the true secret.

But no.

There is, I think, a problem for any story when the central character will not buy the author’s ending. All Brown can make Langdon do is shrug his shoulders and experience the feeling of hope.

I write on Conspiracy Theories, and I had hoped (see how this almost works as a segue) that “The Lost Symbol” would be the catalyst for the next series of popular discussions on Conspiracy Theories. “The Da Vinci Code” was an unexpected success, and a lot of people outside Brown and his publishers, made money from the whole endeavour. The only reason I rushed out to buy the book was to get it read as quickly as possible so as to be ready to answer questions about what I thought was going to be the next fad.

I may have wasted my time.

Or maybe not. Those ‘kids’ on the bus believed it.

I imagine people in my position felt the same as I do now after they read “The Da Vinci Code;” no one will take notice of this rubbish.

They did.

Maybe they will again.

So, given that people are already talking about “The Lost Symbol” as if it were fact, what are it’s chief talking points?

I’ve mentioned the Bible. As a book it contains, it seems, not just the story of the Christian messiah but also wisdom of the ages, previously known as the power of the Ancient Mysteries, as well as advanced scientific knowledge.

Luckily, this treasure trove of information, is available in bookstores almost everywhere.

Yet is hidden by the Freemasons in every cornerstone that they lay.

The Bible, as the secret of the Freemasons, is surprisingly dull for two reasons. The first is that the Bible is no secret; whether you approve of it or not, its a book you can get anywhere. The second is that the reveal of this secret is so built up and so tortured that when you are told, it underwhelms.

Dan Brown may have meant it to. Langdon is unimpressed by the Bible being the secret of the Freemasons; he seems, like this reviewer, to find that supremely unlikely. It feels like it should be a double-bluff; Langdon will point out how that cannot be the case and then the canny Freemason will go “You have passed the test” and reveal the true secret.

That doesn’t happen, which leads to the question, did Brown not have a suitable mystery to reveal or is he playing us?

I suspect the former. Brown tries, very hard, to place the Bible as the central text of the Enlightenment, showing how Newton, Boyle, and so forth, studied it and, somehow, made their advances from the coded secrets within. Brown voices his scepticism of this thesis through Langdon, the arch-skeptic of the story, whilst he argues for it via the voice of Katherine Solomon, the Noetic ‘scientist’ who can see that the Ancients (in all their cultural forms) knew more than we did today.

Which leads into the second strand of “The Lost Symbol,” the ‘science’ of Noetics.

“Angels and Demons” had a minor plot device about the creation of anti-matter; a creatio ex nihilo event that motivates the villain of the piece to set his plot in motion. “The Lost Symbol” has Noetics as a fairly thread of the plot; the villain, seeking to destroy the coming of a new age of Enlightenment. Noetics, a discipline devoted to the ability of the human mind to affect and change the physical world, is taken to be the modern version of the Ancient Mysteries. Katherine Solomon, as a ‘scientist’ provides a material basis for the mysticism; the secret of the Masons (which is the Bible) will be world-changing because it was the basis for modern Physics and yet the human message of the Bible, the power of human beings to be godlike, has been lost.

The first problem is that Noetics is not science and not demonstratably proven, despite the assertions of the author. The assertions in the text are a little troubling; if the book was presented as pure fiction Noetics could be used as a plot device, but Brown continues to reassure his readers that this field is true, as if he is trying to impart something important. Like “The Da Vinci Code” “The Lost Symbol” starts with a statement of fact asserting that all rituals, locations and the science described inside is true and factual. Either Brown wants us to believe or he is playing the game everyone suspected he was in “The Da Vinci Code;” he is trying to give the fiction a false authority.

It is hard to discern whether he really believes in Noetics and the Ancient Mysteries; Langdon is, it seems, not convinced by the end of the book. If Brown didn’t continue to assert that Noetics is, in fact, true, then Langdon’s skepticism would be warranted, but Langdon appears to be a bit of a dupe in this book.

Which leads into another weird issue with “The Lost Symbol;” Langdon is very much one of the characters in this book, rather than the lead. Langdon is the character to whom the plot occurs, or centres around, but he is not primary. He solves the puzzles, but he is often lead, unlike the previous books, where his ‘brilliance’ is sufficient to make him the hero. In “The Lost Symbol” Langdon is dragged from point to point, plot device to plot device, unconvinced and often uninterested in what is really going on around him. He is interested in saving his friend but he remains skeptical of the secret and surprised, as well as disappointed, by its reveal.

It’s no Holy Grail.

I could segue here, with that comment about the Holy Grail and mention the Templars, which would get us easily to the Freemasons, who use a lot of Templar imagery, but that would be trite. It is the kind of inference Brown would use, and I’m not going to stoop to his level.

Except that I just have.

Nevermind.

The Freemasons, as a secret order, get fairly good press in “The Lost Symbol.” They have weird and wacky rituals, it is true, but they are presented as good men doing good works. Indeed, aside from the dressing of the Bible being their secret, they don’t really have any character within the book. The Illuminati (such as they were) in “Angels and Demons” had character, reason and menace; Opus Dei, “The Da Vinci Code” felt like a society driven to commit those terrible acts. The Freemasons? A few of their members have access to a secret, one hidden within a particular family. Indeed, the Freemasons are just a gloss on the Solomon family and their particular secret. You could replace the Freemasons with the Shriners, or the Rosicrucians or any old secret society implicated in rich American families. Really, this book is about the Solomons, the prodigal son, the widow’s son, the notion of change and how wealth and wisdom are not necessarily interrelated.

The gloss is meant to link the story with Washington, D.C.; the early rulers of America were Freemasons and the like, and thus the secret of the Solomons is really the secret of what made America great (which is the Bible, apparently, a book notably present elsewhere in the world).

“Angels and Demons” had Rome and its ancient and sometimes strange architecture and statuary. “The Da Vinci Code” had Da Vinci and his art, with all the attendant symbology. Washington, D.C. should be a perfect place to situate “The Lost Symbol;” it has weird architecture, an interesting history… Yet Brown never makes good use of his location; Langdon spends ninety pages in a rotunda, chapters in a nondescript basement, time in a taxi, time in a mansion and so forth. The tightness of the time frame does not given Langdon a chance to visit much of Washington, D.C. and what time he does spend there is mostly focussed on analysing a pyramid, an invention from whole cloth, rather than existing pieces of art or architecture.

This is not a book that will lend itself well to walking tours.

I’ve not said much about the villain and his motivation. Indeed, if anything is more surprising than the Bible as the secret of Freemasonry, it is the national security concern. Apparently we are meant to think that, essentially, a YouTube video of Masonic rituals featuring prominent members of society, is a threat to national security. It just doesn’t ring true. Maybe, not being American, I don’t get the intuition as to how damaging to the American psyche this might be; perhaps, given the myth of how Christian the USA is, Masonic rituals really do offend our American cousins, but still, an issue of national security?

Really?

“Angels and Demons,” at least, had a nuclear weapon as its threat. “The Da Vinci Code” had a clever conceit that, in fact, Opus Dei was not trying to hide a secret but rather blackmail the Roman Catholic Church with that secret, whilst being played by a third party.

“The Lost Symbol” has a video clip.

The villain ostensibly infiltrates Masonry to learn its greatest secret, except that, as he is the son of the prominent Mason and knows that his family is hiding the secret, really he doesn’t need the infiltration; he just needs to torture his father and learn where he has hidden it (or, conversely, he could book into a motel and check the drawer beside the bed).

Nothing in this book really works. It feels as if Brown, seeking to repeat the incredible and unexpected success of “The Da Vinci Code” that he needs all the ingredients of the previous books to make this one work. He doesn’t seem to realise the book should stand on its own and be its own creature, not a compendium of the moments that made the other books work.

This isn’t really a review; it’s more a series of exasperated sighs. This won’t change the likelihood of you reading this book, buying this book or seeing the film. Those who have read and enjoyed Brown’s earlier works will buy this one. Those who have sworn off him will ask “Why did you, Matthew, read this book?”

I read it because I thought I had to.

You don’t have to. It’s not worth your while.

Not at all.

Notes

  1. I’ve given up trying to finesse this review any further; it is taking up too much time and, really, “The Lost Symbol” is just not worth my time.

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