The most blockbustery blockbuster of the year found its way into my lap and with curiosity piqued (and a break needed from festival preparations) I indulged in one solid reading session – cover to cover – and was mainly intrigued, despite a few small snags.
In The Lost Symbol, Harvard Professor Robert Langdon is called to give a last-minute talk at the Capitol Building in Washington DC. But soon the severed, tattooed hand of his mentor is found, pointing at a painted ceiling; and a short bossy CIA agent becomes involved. Then come vaults and passageways and codes and clues and of course, danger.
Quite a few cornball descriptions snagged me (‘Then, like an oncoming truck, it hit her’) and I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the bland, asexual symbologist Professor Langdon, but this book is a rich puzzle of connections. Langdon’s purpose is to play out the reader’s fears and their scepticisms. From planted clues early on in the novel emerges a mix of Masonic myth and history, humanist thought, new age mind ‘science’, technology, art, and a really fun, despicable phoenix-tattooed eunuch villain.
Brown’s books contain oft-far-fetched but worthy conceptual considerations. In The Da Vinci Code it was the notion of the sacred feminine which kept me reading, despite the clunky writing. His writing here is smoother, though the (albeit interesting) bits and bobs about historical figures and information are still a little intrusive. Better than having them be expositional though. Though even with limited exposition, the dialogue is pretty cringeworthy. So many of the characters call men and boys ‘son’. People just don’t talk like that.
What isn’t amateurish is the phenomenally rich plot. And there is much that is original about this book, and about Brown’s work. I still think he’s nothing on Clive Cussler, if you’re going for far-fetched adventure (with a much more charismatic lead, in Dirk Pitt). But there are a few sequences in this book, which I really did not see coming. Brown’s other skill is connection – not just between plot points, but between concepts. ie. modern science and ancient mysticism, the similarities between different religions and belief systems (and the similar misunderstandings), the connection between this odd ‘science’ of Noetics (literally mind over matter) and computer metasystems, art and mathematics – plus concepts of language, knowledge, enlightenment, truth and power.
This book really is great fun and much more stimulating than a lot of the big-publisher-faff out there. I know it’s lame that some authors clog the shelves with their massive print runs and you get sick of seeing their covers in the hands of commuters everywhere, but I’ve never understood the weird logic of choosing not to read something just because it’s popular. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.