Spoiler Warning! Please stop here if you don’t want to read about the ending of this novel or to hear more about the “massive sex organ” mentioned in yesterday’s post.
The Lost Symbol: A Novel. By Dan Brown. Doubleday, 509 pp., $29.95.
By Janice Harayda
Were the publishers of The Lost Symbol so worried about its sales that they tried to steal some of the thunder of The Secret, the bestselling nonfiction book of 2007? The covers of both books show lit-from-behind crimson wax seals against a background that looks like parchment with cryptic markings. And the similarities don’t end there.
Dan Brown’s first novel since The Da Vinci Code is the book we might get if Rhonda Byrne turned to fiction, a mishmash of New Age mysticism and scientific half-truths. Both The Lost Symbol and The Secret hinge on the idea that ancient secrets can transform the lives of people who are enlightened enough to hear them. Byrne calls her “secret” the “law of attraction,” the theory that your thoughts can manipulate physical reality: diseases, lottery tickets, your bank account. She quotes the “personal empowerment advocate” Lisa Nichols: “When you think of the things you want, and you focus on them with all of your intention, then the law of attraction will give you exactly what you want, every time.”
Brown doesn’t mention the “law of attraction” in The Lost Symbol but draws on noetic theory — which he calls noetic “science” — a realm of metaphysics that deals with forms of consciousness typically ignored by mainstream science. And the characters in the novel often sound like Byrne. The plot involves efforts by Harvard professor Robert Langdon to find the wealthy Peter Solomon, a kidnapped Washington, D.C., Mason who speaks of “secrets that transcend your wildest imagination.”
But no one sounds more like Byrne than Peter’s sister, Katherine, who plays Lois Lane to Langdon’s Clark Kent. Brown says that Katherine’s research had proved “that ‘focused thought’ could affect literally anything” — the growth rate of plants, the direction in which fish swam. “Katherine had created beautifully symmetrical ice crystals by sending loving thoughts to a glass of water as it froze.” Katherine agrees. “I have witnessed people transform cancer cells into healthy cells simply by thinking about them,” she says. And: “Our brains, if used correctly, can call forth powers that are quite literally superhuman.” Langdon realizes as he listens to Katherine: “Human thought can literally transform the world.”
All of this has at least one problem that The Secret does: The writing might make you think warmly of Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins and all other writers who, bad as they were, at least didn’t italicize every passage written in the free indirect style. Brown says of the man who has kidnapped Peter Solomon and chopped off his hand:
“His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway [sic], his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.”
Let’s leave aside that the first sentence in that passage says there were two “archways” and second says that there was one. Let’s also ignore that unless the man had no scrotum, more than one sex organ was hanging beneath his “archways of mystical power.” And let’s overlook that this passage is as purple as – well, do you need to be told? Apart from all of it, the mention of that “heavy shaft” is one of those “gratuitous” sexual details that actually is gratuitous instead of just offensive to some tastes: The size of that “massive sex organ” has nothing to do with the plot. The man never uses for its intended purposes, and if it had once been his “source of carnal pleasure,” it would also have been his “source of carnal pleasure” if it had been smaller.
The Secret has writing that, in its own way, is as bad. But The Lost Symbol has another problem that relates to its function as a potboiler. Thrillers often begin slowly and gain speed as the bodies pile up. The Lost Symbol has the opposite problem: It starts briskly but loses momentum and crawls through its last third. The slowdown occurs in part because Brown has the literary equivalent of a stutter: He can’t stop repeating himself. It also occurs because he’s cross-purposes with himself: He can’t decide whether he’s writing a thriller, a lecture, a homily, a defense of Freemasonry, or a tourist brochure.
Brown gives you hundreds of pages about codes, ciphers, symbols, cryptograms, pictographs, and New Age arcana that you expect ultimately to snap into place like the solid colors on the faces of a Rubik’s cube. But the ending washes out. The Lost Symbol doesn’t build toward an ingenious final twist – as good thrillers typically do – but to a message you might hear from a football player pointing toward the sky in the moments after his team won the Super Bowl. On the next-to-last page, Brown writes, “Nothing is hidden that will not be made known; nothing is secret that will not come to light.” Rhonda Byrne couldn’t have said it better.
Best line: “’Google’ is not a synonym for ‘research.’”
Worst line: See the Sept. 24 post “Dan Brown’s 5 Worst Lines From ‘The Lost Symbol” and the Oct. 6 post on “The Dan Brown Chuckle Meter”. A few more worst lines: No. 1: “His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway [sic], his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.” No. 2: “Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations.” No. 3: “Twelve are the signs of the zodiac. Twelve are the hours of the day.” No. 4: “According to Nola’s spec sheet, the UH-60 had a chassis-mounted, laser-sighted, six-gigahertz magnetron with a fifty-dB-gain horn that yielded a ten-gigawatt pulse.”
Editor: Jason Kaufman
Published: September 15, 2009
Furthermore: You may also want to read the Sept. 29 post, “Is The Lost Symbol ‘Offensive’ to Christianity?”
About the author: Brown’s other Robert Langdon novels are Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.