Dan Brown is the mono-sodium glutamate of fiction writers. Let me explain. You know that feeling you get when you eat a Chinese takeaway, that feeling of rich satisfaction and fullness — how five minutes after you have finished those feelings have been replaced by a feeling of emptiness, when you feel bloated and yet strangely unfulfilled? That feeling is created by the wonders of MSG and it’s exactly the feeling you will get reading The Lost Symbol.
First of all lets start by putting all our cards on the table. I read The DaVinci Code before it got big (honest I did) because of a longstanding interests in esoteric tales. For the same reason I have read Clive Cussler, enjoyed Indiana Jones and was glued to the X-files. So I enjoyed The DaVinci Code largely because of the subject matter. Then things got out of hand. Sales of the book took off, everybody was reading it and inevitably its popularity led to an intense literary snobbery. Clearly true art can’t be popular so therefore popularity equals poor art.
I was confused. Was this the same book I read and kind of enjoyed (I also read Brown’s other books and kind of enjoyed them)? Was it really so bad, am I that poor a judge of writing, what exactly did I enjoy? So I started The Lost Symbol with some trepidation, almost embarrassment, at reading such populist trash. Why, I might as well be reading Jeffrey Archer or Jilly Cooper!
Back to the current book though, and a brief synopsis. Robert Langdon (international symbol expert) is called to Washington to give a talk, only when he gets there he discovers that he is instead on a quest. It’s a quest which sees him and his (brilliant) female companion try to evade capture by a homicidal maniac whilst being helped by rich old man (that’s right – it’s the same plot at The DaVinci Code).
Needless to say the characters are drawn into a world of Masonic conspiracies, hidden knowledge and a quest to discover the ultimate secret. Do they succeed… well, you will have to read it to find out but don’t build up your hopes.
Brown’s skill as a writer lies in engaging his readers with short snappy chapters which nearly always end on some hanging plot point or Flash Gordon-type cliffhanger. His failings as a writer are all the other stuff, like plot, characters, and dialogue. This leads to a strange duality where you may race through The Lost Symbol with a degree of excitement but it leaves you strangely unaffected. You don’t really care about the characters, you just want to know the secret. After all, Robert Langdon, Brown's recurring protagonist, could quite happily fall into a vat of acid and I wouldn’t care. He is totally unengaging — and this is the hero! He is also, or appears to be, particularly thick and despite being the expert on symbols seems to need everything explained before he finally “gets it”. At times you might urge on the bad guys just to get to the end quicker… just tell me the sodding secret!
Using the same techniques as in DaVinci Brown takes you through these esoteric, hidden (in full view) locations but there is nothing new here, it’s all freely available on the same shelves that held the books he got the DaVinci plot from. In fact I read The Field by Lynne McTaggart five years ago, so whilst it’s great to see subjects like Noetic science getting some recognition it’s not original and that’s one of the big failings of this book. Despite all the cliffhangers, all the action, did I learn anything? That might not be an issue — this is fiction after all — but Brown’s whole technique is to tease the reader onto the next page with promises of further revelations, when these revelations turn out to be years old and frankly often uninteresting. The reader can’t help but feel disappointed.
So like that Chinese meal, this book and Brown’s writing in general, whilst satisfying at the moment of consumption is ultimately poor quality, artificial, and probably bad for your health. Again though, like the finest junk food, it’s strangely compelling. Will I be there for the next book? Probably. You can find out more about this book just about anywhere you care to look.