It's clear that Dan Brown wanted to be an author of ideas before he realized he could be an author of bestsellers. Although his celebrated previous books Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code must be described stylistically as formulaic thrillers, Brown has long seemed unconcerned during interviews whether critics scoff at his lack of artistry; his stated goal is to get people talking about the conspiracies and underlying ideologies that obsess his protagonist, a college professor named Robert Langdon. I confessed when I reviewed The Da Vinci Code for this site that I'm a shameless fan of Brown's work. If you're looking for innovation or creativity in the mystery genre, you aren't going to find it, but if you're looking for an engrossing story with nods to ancient mysteries, Brown is the perfect place to start. The Lost Symbol has exactly the same virtues and flaws as his earlier novels, which may aggravate readers hoping to see some development in Brown's style over the past few years, yet at the same time, it's a comfortable format in which to enjoy the word-games, puzzles, puns, and maps that guide the way to the lost symbol of the title.
Each of Brown's previous books has explored broad religious and scientific themes in the context of a specific secret or secretive society; previous books focused on alien-hunters, the NSA, the Illuminati, and the Priory of Sion, so it makes sense that The Lost Symbol should turn to the Freemasons. Most students of history who didn't learn in school that many of the pivotal figures in early American history were Masons picked up that information from the National Treasure movies, which at times The Lost Symbol evokes, along with Indiana Jones, The X-Files, Relic Hunter, and dozens of other popular shows with scientists as heroes. Langdon's field, "symbology," doesn't exist in the real world so far as I know, but because its construction frees Langdon from the rigors of both semiotics and anthropology, he can unravel Masonic secrets without fretting overmuch over logic and methodology. Indeed, he's drawn in against his will, as in his previous adventures with the Illuminati and Priory, meaning he can talk like a skeptic while at the same time taking on faith some pretty insane conclusions. This time, however, it's personal, for the character in mortal peril is Langdon's old friend and mentor Peter Solomon, who inspired Langdon's passion for signs and symbols.
And no wonder, for Peter is a senior Mason, charged with protecting a powerful secret that Langdon assumes at first to be metaphorical (though if you've ever read a thriller before, you can guess how wrong Langdon is about that). Peter also has secrets of his own: he suffered a great family tragedy for which he blames himself, which may or may not be connected to his Masonic duties (though again, if you've read previous Dan Brown novels, you can guess). Early in the novel, Peter disappears, and his sister Katherine -- a scientist who has chosen to explore the great mysteries of human life, such as whether thoughts produce energy and whether it is possible to weigh a soul -- finds herself besieged by a terrifying tattooed stranger. A chase ensues all over Washington, DC to unravel the stranger's secrets and stop whatever dire plan he has put in motion to destroy Peter, Katherine, and all of Freemasonry. For a lifelong DC resident like me, the architectural tour of the city alone makes it worth reading the book; it has the same flaws as the television series 24 in that there's no way Langdon traveled to all these places without hitting a single traffic jam, but assuming that one can suspend one's disbelief about that, it becomes relatively easy to suspend one's disbelief about everything else.
Even for someone familiar with legends about the Freemasons, the novel is a fun read, whether or not you believe in their connections with the Knights Templar, the Egyptian Mystery Schools, the Enlightenment philosophers and all the rest. Langdon is a fan of Arthur C. Clarke's declaration that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, which he reiterates twice; meanwhile, Katherine is determined to prove Doctor Who's axiom that thoughts can change the world, especially if many people start focusing on the same thought at the same time. As usual, Langdon sets out with a declaration that various esoteric and occult subjects are fairy tales, only to see them proven true -- literally true, not just mythological archetypes or metaphors. On the one hand, I am always pleased when a writer interested in contemporary science doesn't scoff at what historically was understood to be science as well -- some medical researchers and nuclear physicists could learn from the ethics of alchemists and astrologers. But sometimes it seems as if Brown won't accept that a legend can be true even if it's a metaphor.
"Sometimes a legend that endures for centuries . . . endures for a reason," declares the villain, Mal'akh, with which the prominent female scientist finds herself agreeing. This could be Brown's motto, since it's the overriding theme of his books. Of Mal'akh, Langdon says, "He's made the same error many zealots make -- confusing metaphor with literal reality," and there are moments when this seems to be true of Brown as well. His Holy Grail ended up being an object rather than the search for the spiritual concept symbolized by that object; does anyone think the Masonic Pyramid will turn out to be merely a metaphor for the quest for higher knowledge? When Langdon realizes at one point in the story that he is holding a key to decoding a map that he first took to be merely a valuable keepsake, he thinks about how the person who gave him the key called the object a talisman, and reflects on how the word "talisman" comes from the Greek word for completion. It's as if the author thinks the story won't be complete without a literal, physical discovery, not just a shift in mental perspective, an intellectual breakthrough. This is quite ironic considering how often the villain fails because he can't grasp that some stories are meant to be interpreted as parables, not facts.
If Brown, like his villain, can't resist giving away his secrets too soon, there's still something satisfying as a reader about solving the mystery before the erudite main character, so maybe it's deliberate -- a choice to make the reader comfortable within the framework of the thriller so that the ideas being presented seem comfortable as well. The Masons are portrayed entirely sympathetically, to a degree that I find troubling. Langdon states early in the book that the Masons are open to people of any race and creed . . .with the exception of women. Though he's quick to point out that women can join the sister organization, Eastern Star, he doesn't mention that for a woman must be a spouse or relative of a Mason to join it, and he recognizes the woman who protests the all-male Masonic order as a member of Harvard's Women's Center, implying that only a radical feminist would find the boys-only club objectionable.
If the Masons were just a group of misunderstood old men performing arcane rituals, that might be less of a problem, but these Masons are a group of misunderstood enlightened souls protecting ancient wisdom who hold some of the most powerful positions in the United States. Brown positions prominent Masons in the roles they have historically held as Presidents, Senators, Supreme Court justices, etc., with George Washington very nearly deified. Eastern Star comes across in relation to the Masons the way Katherine comes across in relation to Peter: brilliant, promising, but in need of the support and protection of her far-more-important older brother. She toils in obscurity while Peter enjoys all the privileges of a Masonic tradition that is treated here like the natural birthright of his aristocratic family -- something Peter always hoped to pass on to his own son. Whether the Masons are truly the philanthropic guards of ancient knowledge or a historic group clinging to political power, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of venerating them, especially considering it's a group Sonia Sotomayor, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton could never join.
Though the halls of power are controlled by white men, there are plenty of women and people of color in supporting roles, my favorite of whom are the Japanese-American who's the highest-ranking CIA official we see in the book and the female assistant of a prominent female scientist. There aren't any women being stalked by would-be rapists here as there were in previous Brown novels, and the body count is surprisingly low. I suppose the theme of enlightenment through ancient wisdom might be more successful for me if the main characters didn't act so absurdly enlightened in the face of death; they might believe that the end of life is a transformation to the next phase, but given that they are tortured and they suffer a horrific family tragedy as well as some smaller professional tragedies, it's hard to believe they could be so enthralled at the discoveries they've made that it's as though those traumas are completely erased.
In a funny way, the ethics of The Lost Symbol remind me of those of Harry Potter. People are permanently stuck with the personalities they had as teenagers, and can't break out of those molds, to such an extent that one almost starts to sympathize with the villain. Langdon never considers that maybe it's precisely the all-male rich aristocratic cliquish nature of the Masons that makes them a target for people who think they're, well, an all-male rich aristocratic clique -- a New World Order. In some ways they resemble the Vatican of Angels & Demons, despite being open-minded about the true nature of God.
Which is not to say that the book lacks humor or a sense of irony. Throughout the first three-quarters of the novel, the Washington Redskins are winning a playoff game -- a fact that serves as a constant distraction and excuse for security guards not quite focused on their jobs, though things then get too complicated for such menial pursuits and Brown never even tells us if the Redskins won. Since a central subject of the book is the enlightenment of the human mind, I wonder if Brown even ponders the fact that if enlightenment were offered to the entire human race just as the Masons believe it someday will be, a lot of people would not be interested -- not because they have chosen the path of nihilism and hatred like the villain, but because many people would rather just watch the Redskins, and play video games, and hang out with their buddies, and read mediocre thrillers. Surely Brown has noticed that people are more interested in the Illuminati and the Holy Grail, and now the Freemasons, because he's written fiction about them? Enlightenment is hard work, whether it's the Tarot or the Mahabarata or the Bible one is reading. Chasing tattooed bad guys and unlocking Masonic puzzles seems simple by comparison.
Green Man Reviews