An editor of The Daily Beast with a sense of humor contacted me and asked if I would review Dan Brown’s latest book. I liked his idea and agreed, though I realized that it put me in a potentially difficult position, having gone head to head in court with Dan Brown over the claim that he misappropriated the intellectual property created by Holy Blood, Holy Grail; a case my colleague and I lost, expensively.
But that is the way of such things: Someone wins and someone loses. There is little point in carrying resentment afterward.
Nevertheless, writing a review of The Lost Symbol might easily be seen by some as a way for me to score points or exact some kind of cheap revenge, so I resolved to be scrupulous; to praise what was praiseworthy and to criticize what wasn’t.
I closed the book, took a deep breath, and looked at the ceiling in despair: The book was awful. It was so bad that it was a candidate for the worst book that I had ever tried to read. And I had another 501 pages to go.
I had briefly met Dan Brown during the court case and he seemed to me a perfectly friendly and polite man, rather shy and, so far as I could tell, unable to truly understand why we had brought the case at all. He was not the sort of person against whom you harbored anger.
With the end of the publisher’s embargo, I received the copy of his latest book, opened it, and settled down to devour a fast-paced thriller.
By Page 8, my plan fell to pieces. I closed the book, took a deep breath, and looked at the ceiling in despair: The book was awful. It was so bad that it was a candidate for the worst book that I had ever tried to read. And I had another 501 pages to go.
Whatever else it did, The Da Vinci Code at least had a furious pace. It galloped along from one crisis to another, revealing mysterious and enigmatic secrets on the journey.
But The Lost Symbol dies repeatedly; it doesn’t ever have the chance to develop any pace because Brown dumps chunks of often irrelevant information directly into the text, stopping the narrative dead in the water.
It is a very peculiar style, and I am amazed that his editor didn’t rewrite those pieces for him.
An early example comes when the ubiquitous protagonist Robert Langdon arrives in Washington by private jet. In a particularly mundane exchange, he is told that he would look good in a tie. He hates ties. Suddenly the reader is treated to a history of ties involving Roman orators and Croat mercenaries. It is as if Brown wants us to think that he is a great scholar rather than a deft hand at computer searching.
The result is that all putative momentum is lost. The narrative grinds to a halt and then needs to be started up again.
Throughout the 509 pages of the book, such pieces are inserted almost at random without any serious attempt to put them in the service of the story’s momentum.
It is as if the book was written from reading a few basic texts and the rest from material culled from the Internet, which has been simply dropped into the manuscript without much attempt to integrate it properly into the service of the narrative.
The so-called scholarly credentials of Langdon and his companion, one Katherine Solomon, are also rather suspect. Much is made of Noetic Science and the important experiments with the Random Number Generators. The peer-reviewed scientific journal where much of this research is published, The Journal of Scientific Exploration, never receives a mention; it would seem obligatory for anyone pretending to expertise in this area.
He mentions a scholar’s library of 500 books: No scholar I have ever met operates with less than several thousand, with a further few thousand as backup. Brown has no idea of scholars.
Even Langdon, with whom Brown obviously identifies, has his authority destroyed near the end of the book when he is recorded as admitting that he had never understood why, early in the Old Testament, the word for God was Elohim, a plural term. This question is normally resolved in a first-year university course.
Brown’s style reveals an endemic laziness: “He gave Langdon the jet’s tail number and various other information.” If this information is relevant to the story, then let’s have it; if not, remove it. In a thriller, it is better that the prose serves the story’s pace.
In an attempt to introduce excitement we have, “A loud metallic crash echoed... Then, quite unexpectedly, the crash echoed again. And again. And again.”
Yes. We get the idea. But really, the original crash should not have been an echo. Or am I being overpedantic?
Dan Brown is not seeking to write great literature but he is seeking to gain respect for his ability to write competent and thrilling stories. And due to his very high profile created by a formidable marketing operation, he has, by default, been hailed as a kind of standard to which writers might aspire, which is very sad.
A good story needs to keep its eye on the ball, on the words chosen, on the ideas, and on the development of the story; all need to feed into pace and revelation.
Writers like James Lee Burke, John Grisham, and Lee Child, for example, have gained a deserved success through their richly drawn characters, tightly controlled, fast-paced plots and, importantly, the introduction of some lyricism and color to bring their characters to life.
Brown sees no need for any of this: His characters are flat and colorless. It is very hard to care about any of them. They are but shadows tumbling through an increasingly predictable plot.
But there is something to praise: His attitude toward Freemasonry. It is fair and, up to a point, accurate. Importantly, he makes clear the political and spiritual inclusiveness of Freemasonry, which is one of its greatest strengths.
There is some artistic license taken: During his Masonic ceremony, the villain drinks out of a cup fashioned from a human skull. This is something more likely to be found in a Tibetan temple rather than a Masonic temple.
Brown also conflates two quite distinct forms of Freemasonry, that of the three degrees—“Craft” or “Blue” Freemasonry, which is by far the largest—and that of the “Scottish Rite,” which has 33 degrees. All Scottish Rite Masons will normally also be Craft Masons, but the 33rd-degree Mason is not at the pinnacle of all Freemasonry, he has simply gained the highest stage of the Scottish Rite. It is a very common mistake repeated by Brown.
Freemasonry is initiatory, it is based upon experience. The experience of the Third Degree, involving death as it does, contains all the secrets for those who can perceive them.
In the end, having struggled through the story to its final, pathetically anticlimactic ending, I was left with only one possible conclusion: The emperor has no clothes. Someone has to tell him; his publishers certainly won’t.
Dan, do us all a favor: Stop! Drag yourself away from your computer and go out and have some adventures: Drive a Land Rover covered in fuel canisters and sand tracks across the Sahara, trek to the Tibetan sacred mountain, live in Kashgar or Irkutsk for a year studying central Asian shamanism, island-hop in Greece until you have fully experienced both the past and the present.
Or, closer to home, experience for yourself Native American shamanism in some place of remote and wild beauty where the stars make their nests in the mountaintops.
Indeed, you might be interested that many Native Americans, especially in the 19th century, joined Freemasonry; did they see the parallels with their own shamanic traditions?
And, who knows, in time you might discover that you have something genuine to write about.
Michael Baigent’s new book is Racing Toward Armageddon: The Three Great Religions and the Plot to End the World. He is also the author, with Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, of Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail.