Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Lost Symbol, plus more Dan Brown

I've read Dan Brown's entire catalog. I imagine most people who have read his books followed about the same path I did: I'd never heard of the guy until 2003, when The Da Vinci Code became huge, controversial news. Of course, I didn't pick up The Da Vinci Code just on the promise of controversy alone. All the controversy in the world wouldn't save it from a clunky plot, or an unbelievable premise, or a stupid story. But I got the idea that The Da Vinci Code wouldn't be like that--it had the promise of junk science, and cryptic codes, and secret societies, and world travel.

The Da Vinci Code actually exceeded my expectations. It turned out to be a fast-paced thriller, with some unexpected twists, some intelligent cryptography, and just enough "oh, yeah, right" moments to make it worth reading. Based on its strength, I--and judging by bestseller lists in 2003-2004, thousands and thousands of other people--decided to read the rest of Dan Brown's books.

Turns out we didn't really need to. For illustration, here's a summary of some undisclosed Dan Brown book. Harvard professor, skeptic, and symbologist extraordinaire Robert Langon is called to check out a mysterious happening at a well-known world landmark. As he investigates, he realizes that the mystery is much deeper than it appears, linked to some ancient (but ultimately misunderstood) society that serves as a guardian of mystical knowledge. Langdon relies on a few important allies, including his mentor Peter Solomon, and an attractive female fringe scientist, whose knowledge sets coincidentally complement his own in the exact right way to solve the mystery. By the end, Langdon has stumbled on some secret that only a handful of other people on Earth have ever seen, not to mention kindling a romance with the attractive female scientist and exposing some bad people in the upper ranks of an important organization.

Now, if you've read The Da Vinci Code, you're probably nodding along and adding some details about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail. If you've read Angels and Demons, you're probably nodding along and adding details about antimatter and the Illuminati. Or, if you've read The Lost Symbol, you're probably nodding along and adding details about the Freemasons and Noetic Science.

You might argue that Dan Brown is not unlike any other author in that regard: Robin Cook has written dozens of formulaic medical dramas; John Grisham has written dozens of formulaic legal dramas; the late Michael Crichton wrote dozens of formulaic weird-science dramas. So Dan Brown has the market cornered on thrillers featuring cryptic symbols and secret societies. The biggest difference here is that Cook, or Grisham, or Crichton, wrote different books every time.

To say that every Dan Brown book is an unabashed clone of the last is a bit of an exaggeration. But each does follow the pattern above, especially the Langdon books. (It's worth mentioning that he has written two other books, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, that only somewhat follow the pattern. They're cousins to the nuclear family that includes the Langdon triplets.)

If these books are so much the same, are they all worth reading? That's the fantastic thing about Dan Brown's books: you know exactly what you'll be getting, but it's entertaining anyway. If nothing else, Brown has perfected the art of the thriller. His pace is frenetic, almost amusingly so, starting a new chapter about every four pages. But each mini-chapter ends on enough of a cliffhanger, or at least an intriguing development, that you want to keep reading until you reach that batch of characters again.

So yes, Brown's books are all worth reading, if you're into this sort of thing. Bear in mind, he's not writing great literature. If you're looking for powerful redemptive tales, or multi-faceted character development, or multiple layers of interpretation, or an acknowledgment of the entire spectrum of emotional experience, you're very much in the wrong place. About the only commentary on the human condition Brown is going to make is something about man's insatiable curiosity about the unknown.

I haven't said a lot about The Lost Symbol itself yet. It mostly plays like a rehash of The Da Vinci Code, which in turn played like a rehash of Angels and Demons. There are a few differences--the biggest one is that The Lost Symbol feels a lot closer to home than the other two. Set in DC and involving locations and historical figures intimately related to the American cultural tableau, Symbol has a "what if this is true?" factor that the earlier books lacked.

The fringe science du jour in Symbol is noetic science, which makes using particle colliders at CERN to create antimatter (a la Angels and Demons) look downright plausible. But where antimatter was actually important to the plot of Angels, noetics were a MacGuffin in Symbol: Katherine Solomon's research could have been on self-assembling nanosurfaces, or the inclusion of the Korean language in the Altaic family, or the feces-throwing capabilities of different monkey species, and it would not have changed the plot. The beginning of the book seemed to promise thoughts projecting a force in a sort of noetic telekinesis, but we never get it.

More differences exist--Langdon exchanges romance with a young, attractive female scientist for friendship with a middle-age attractive female scientist. There's less focus on ancient messages embedded in well-known works of art, and more focus on slightly less ancient messages embedded in a totally secret stone pyramid. And in the end, Langdon doesn't come across any world-shattering discoveries, just an affirmation of religious faith by the nation's founders. All of that adds to a sense of plausibility in Symbol that wasn't present in Da Vinci and Angels.

Between that plausibility, the cultural intimacy, and a few unexpected twists, The Lost Symbol is probably Brown's best book yet. It's impossible to put down and a great read, assuming you know and like what you're getting yourself into. And if you've read anything else by Dan Brown, there's little doubt of that.

Currently listening: Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

No comments: