Book: The Lost Symbol
Writer(s): Dan Brown
This is a strange book. I guess that should be expected, considering the author, but I still found it unusual. It doesn't quite know what it is: a thriller with pseudo-science/religious overtones? Is it an agenda piece? What's the point of it?
The pacing is as annoyingly Dan Brown as ever, with ultra-short chapters each ending on an overly dramatic suspense point (i.e. in the middle of a sentence). What I found most frustrating is the way he deliberately withholds information just to milk the suspense. Most writers do this to an extent, but only with one or two key secrets that are the core of the novel -- like the identity of the killer. Brown does it with everything. It makes the novel grating to read. Every chapter ends with, "And then he uncovered the shocking text. He stared in disbelief, unable to fathom what he was seeing. Could this really say what he thought it said? This was going to change the world!"
It would be one thing if the deep dark secrets hidden were actually deep dark secrets, but most of the time they aren't. Either the clues are fairly obvious, or we're so manipulated as a reader by Brown's information withholding that there's no possible way we could figure anything out. It feels like a cheat. The most egregious of these is when Brown actually goes back to an earlier telephone conversation, which we thought we had listened to verbatim, and reveals that there was more conversation we hadn't heard. WTF? That's traitorous on the part of the author, as far as I'm concerned.
Speaking of going back in time, Brown makes heavy use of that technique, too, with perhaps 80 percent of the novel being flashbacks. He presumably does this to provide "insight" to his characters, doing things like having a character remember his first meeting with another character. This often happens when the reader first meets the characters, with the result that the reader is left confused about time. Is this fifteen years ago? Is this today? Even worse, sometimes Dan flashes back within a flashback or re-flashes back to reveal new and different information he withheld from us the first time! Arrgh!
All this said, Dan still manages to create a somewhat compelling novel. There are moments of brilliance, in terms of plot, and some of the action sequences are surprisingly well done. There are several surprising events that as I read them, I thought he'd blown it, as they seemed farfetched or over-the-top, but his explanations proved surprisingly logical. And I really liked the secret twist at the end -- the identity of the bad guy -- which wasn't contrived and actually made sense.
The plot itself is fairly simple, though elaborately drawn out. It basically involves a bad guy kidnapping a friend of Robert Langdon, the symbologist from Brown's other novels, with Langdon forced to solve ancient clues left by the Masons to reveal the location of the knowledge of the "ancient mysteries" which supposedly would give a person incredible power. There's a time crunch involved with this task that's nothing short of absurd, with weeks worth of events happening within a few hours (apparently no one gets tired or overwhelmed by circumstance in Dan Brown's universe). The actual puzzles Langdon solves are not bad, though it's highly questionable they would have survived so many years unrevealed and mechanical things still in working order.
Brown sort of tones down the anti-religious rhetoric in this one, though that gets heavier (and more absurd) toward the end. While the plot is wrapped up sufficiently, his non-plot conclusion is awful, especially considering the hyped build-up since page one. After hundreds of pages of emphasizing the power of the "ancient mysteries" and how this knowledge would revolutionize the planet, he reveals it's nothing more than "humans are gods." Lame.