Puzzling piece of tosh

Puzzling piece of tosh

Within three pages of The Lost Symbol — published last week with a show-off midnight release date, only otherwise given to JK Rowling — Dan Brown manages to satisfy both his fans and detractors.

The 80 million readers who bought Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, in which the Catholic church tries to suppress the information that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had kids, will warm to a new story of equally glorious corniness. The premise of The Lost Symbol is that world-altering ‘ancient mysteries’ were hidden beneath Washington DC by the Freemasons among America’s founding fathers.

However, anyone believing that the worldwide worship of the The Da Vinci Code marked a collapse in cultural standards will be equally reassured that nothing has changed.
After only a few paragraphs, a basic grammatical howler inadvertently gives the impression that the White House is a replica of a pre-Christian temple. A few chapters in, a plural adjective is paired with a single noun. The best-selling novelist in modern history, it is clear, remains the worst-writing.

The success of The Da Vinci Code meant Brown could have published anything he wanted at this point but he has resisted any temptation to compose a delicate novella about a Kentucky farmhand having an epiphany at the state fair.  An author whose plots specialise in almost insoluble codes seems himself to rely on an all too obvious formula.

As in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, a secretive sect — here, the Freemasons — believes that mystics in an earlier time hid clues to a discovery that would shatter man’s perceptions — in this case, the ultimate key to creativity — within historic monuments: the new book uses the Capitol building and Washington Monument in much the way that the Vatican and Westminster Abbey served in the early works.

Once again, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is obstructed in his quest to crack this puzzle by a shaven-headed weirdo with a talent for disguise and a tendency to think apocalyptic thoughts in long paragraphs of italics.

Two aspects of this book, though, are new and psychologically fascinating. Langdon frequently, as he flies between engagements in a private jet, reflects on the terrors of celebrity. Thrilled fans harass him in airports. As the books Langdon writes are academic treatises, it seems unlikely that he would be much bothered by his readers in the street and so we can assume that Brown is writing here about the burden of being the world’s most-famous fiction writer.

Staying away from controversy?
The Lost Symbol is also notable for its tone of appeasement towards religious believers. The Da Vinci Code upset many Christians, and Catholics in particular: the Vatican refused permission for the books with priestly villains to be filmed there. Tom Hanks, though, should be free to film the inevitable movie of The Last Symbol in any Washington landmarks he wants.

This book reads like a love-letter to the majority values — political and religious — of Brown’s fellow citizens. The solution to the teaser Langdon faces is finally to be found in one of the few books that has sold more copies than the Da Vinci Code and the climax proclaims, as loudly as Thanksgiving fireworks, both the power of America and a higher power beyond America.

Even so, a Brown sceptic has to be impressed by the skill with which the puzzle is constructed. Played out within a space of 12 hours in 134 chapters of roughly three pages each, The Lost Symbol is a rollicking piece of tosh which turns on the double meanings of several terms, including ‘atonement’, ‘apocalypse’ and ‘hoodwink’. Yet, though the plot is solved through close attention to words, powerful and meaningful sentences continue to elude Dan Brown.

For fans, his greatest achievement is to have sold so many copies of The Da Vinci Code. For the rest of us, his miracle is to have made Jeffrey Archer read like Dostoevsky in comparison.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox