The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

I liked Angels and Demons and I really liked The DaVinci Code but this Dan Brown thriller was barely worth the time, and definitely not worth the money.
The Lost Symbol follows the familiar Dan Brown formula : an ominous conspiracy, a threat to end the world as we know it, a relentless villain, and a search for hidden secrets which require the decoding of obscure clues. This formula has given us a couple of fine thrillers, and has taken advantage of the author’s familiarity with arcane history, philology, symbolism, art and architecture. But even this intriguing texture would not be terribly interesting without the intrepid symbologist Robert Langdon to lead us through the perilous labyrinth at high speed. This time, Langdon must find the Freemason’s grand secret hidden in Washington, D.C. and evade both the CIA and a brilliant but scary villain, while rescuing a kidnapped friend and his sister.

The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons were both intriguing and thrilling enough to overcome Mr. Brown’s weak writing. But because The Lost Symbol’s plot is so much weaker, Brown’s sophomoric writing becomes much more obvious and ever more bothersome as the work progresses. For example, the formulaic mini-cliff-hangers at the end of nearly every chapter became trite and annoying manipulations. Brown also employed several set-pieces of lecture and discovery that annoyingly repeat themselves. This book is full of Brownian clichés.

I think that the credibility of this work is further undermined by using characters who are simultaneously brilliant and clueless. For instance, the fearless and brilliant professor Langdon, who by now should be rather wary of mysterious invitations, flies to Washington D.C. at a moment’s notice supposedly at a friend’s request but without actually speaking to his friend. And even less credible, is that without direct confirmation, he brings with him a top-secret package that he swore to keep hidden at all costs.

Similarly, the brilliant scientist Katherine doesn’t think to back up her life’s work of scientific research, and she allows a man she’s met only once into her “top secret” laboratory because she receives a TEXT message purportedly from her brother who she admits doesn’t even know how to text. And these are not the only naive and clueless people who should know better. The police and security guards are all hapless and even the CIA director fails to question whether a suspect is lying when he says “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

More disappointing still is that the main character of Robert Langdon seems to have been dumbed down in this book. He repeatedly is adamant about thus and such only to be subsequently shocked when the true meaning is revealed. He always requires two attempts to decipher the true meaning of clues – the first one which is obvious and turns out to be wrong, followed by the shocking epiphany. One would think that a Harvard professor would eventually learn that things are not always what they seem. In this work Robert Langdon spends more time being lectured than he does solving mysteries or puzzles. My recollection is that he figured out absolutely nothing critical in the last third of the book.

Even more troubling than Brown’s weak and clichéd characterization is that as the thriller reaches its climax, it becomes clear that the pieces do not fit together well. For instance, for most of the story, both the villain, and the CIA insist the stakes couldn’t be higher, but in the end we learn that the potential danger is merely some bad public relations for a few powerful Masons. Why then is the CIA involved in this extortion plot – especially since it is legally barred from domestic law enforcement? The author simply fails to provide justification for all the black oops of the CIA counter- conspiracy despite their central role in the story.

There are lots of problems with this book, but perhaps its greatest flaw is Dan Brown’s failure to ever explain the main premise for the book, something he calls the Ancient Mysteries. The primary force that propels the plot is the implicit promise that in the end, a tangible secret will be uncovered. While the protagonist keeps asking if this grand secret is merely metaphorical, he is assured by friends, enemies and even the CIA that the secret is literal and potentially dangerous. But, in the end we learn that the grand secret for which people are willing to sacrifice their lives and fortunes doesn’t really exist. What exactly is the point of the pyramid and the secret codes and symbols if the grand mystery is already found in every church, in nearly every home, and in even in all the hotel rooms in the country? Doesn’t that make the entire plot pointless to begin with?

OK, if it’s not clear yet, HERE IS THE BIG SPOILER: The great Masonic secret is the most widely published and read book in history – it is the Bible. Brown’s thesis is that the Bible is loaded with hidden wisdom, and once these biblical secrets are pointed out, people are going to be shocked that they didn’t see them before. And then they are going to be transformed because they now know that they’re one with God, or they’re the same as God, or they are made of God, or some such new age mumbo-jumbo. So in the end the whole purpose of all the elaborate secrecy is that a few people think mankind may not be ready for a new age when human potential will be finally unleashed. So for centuries the inner circle of Masons has pretend elaborate means to hide this enlightenment from a world not ready for apotheosis. And so despite all the symbols and codes, the grand secret is really kept hidden in plain sight. So pay no attention to the coded mysteries behind the curtain.

The ending of this story is an embarrassment. It may be the most anti-climactic, unsatisfying ending I have ever read. While the story kept claiming that earth shattering secrets were soon to be revealed, in the end all the paintings, pyramids, talismans, and other clues turned out to lead to nothing. They resolved nothing, they didn’t even leave us with a mystery yet unsolved. The mystery was solved, and it was an inconsequential whimper instead of a epiphany bang. It is my opinion that the author could not pull together the novel in the last chapters simply because there was nothing to pull together. There was no sweeping statement to be made and no grand secret to be revealed. This left me very unsatisfied at the story’s end.

My rating: 2.5/5

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