Analyse this

Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol (Bantam), is composed, if that’s the right word, of 500 pages of chases, rushing about deciphering symbols, regular mini-lectures on various symbolic meanings, and one good joke.

So, nothing readers of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code will not be expecting. Brown seems to have found his formula, and it appears to be one his readers appreciate. In the weeks leading up to the publication of The Lost Symbol this week, copies of the book were more heavily guarded than Hillary Clinton on a trip to Africa.

The book is readable; I got through it in about six hours.
The chapters are short (averaging just under four pages apiece), with Brown cross-cutting swiftly between storylines: Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon on the trail of yet another symbol, mostly to do with the Freemasons’ preservation of ancient secret wisdom;“noetic” scientist Katherine Solomon and her earth-shattering research into mind-over-matter; plus the viewpoint of the villain of the piece, a hugely muscled, shaven-headed and generously tattooed giant psychopath who basically believes his own mumbo-jumbo.

The form is that of the old western, with rapid back-and-forth cutting between the pursuers and the pursued. This implies that The Lost Symbol is nearly a film script already, a destiny it will doubtless fulfil sometime soon. (The movie of The Da Vinci Code made something like $800-million at the box office.) The story will have to be pruned back, of course, in the translation to film. Much of the information with which Brown lards the narrative will have to be trimmed. For instance, when a character finds himself submerged in a bath of “oxygenated perfluorocarbons”, and the reader is presumably on tenterhooks waiting to find out if he’ll be rescued in time, it would seem unwise to stop and explain the uses and history of oxygenated perfluorocarbons for two pages, as Brown does. This is something of a suspense-killer, and I imagine many readers will skip the plodding explication.

But such moments are an instance of a key part of Brown’s method. He attempts to disguise such digressions by having a character ruminate on this information (“Sato had heard that ... “), which of course comes welling to the surface of his/her mind at once, in straightforward Wikipedia paragraphs, but it’s a thin disguise. Elsewhere, Brown just dumps the information on the page. Take this paragraph, which opens chapter 93: “Franklin Square is located in the northwest quadrant of downtown Washington, bordered by K and Thirteenth streets. It is home to many historic buildings, most notably the Franklin School, from which Alexander Bell sent the world’s first wireless message in 1880.” And that’s a short example. It reads like something copied from a guidebook or pasted in from the internet; it is journalistic, in the most debased manner, not novelistic. In a novel, one doesn’t really want such information; one wants a vivid description. You want to shout at Brown: Yes, but what does it look like?

Prose is not a strong suit here. The language is basic, and, when it isn’t, it is awash with clichés. Silence is deafening, characters hope against hope, and so on; Langdon’s eyes even “flash” at one point. And, talking of flashing, there are many instances of the infelicitous American phrase “he flashed on”, meaning “he had a sudden memory/image of”, placed just where a movie would provide a quick image of something to help the viewer join the dots. Not that the reader or viewer needs help joining the dots; no interpretation is necessary here, for Brown, when he eventually gets there, spells everything out in the most obvious form.

The characters have no character. There are quick sketches to tell us what they look like, and background is filled in briefly, but otherwise they are speaking mannequins. The only exception is the tattooed villain, Mal’akh, in whom Brown seems to have more visceral interest than any other figure in the book. Mal’akh has more inner life than all the rest combined, and in his case Brown suddenly gets his style indirect libre right and rises to flights of highly charged prose:

“His feet were the talons of a hawk. His legs—Boaz and Jachin—were the ancient pillars of wisdom. His hips and abdomen were the archways of mystical power. Hanging beneath the archway, his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny ... ”

Et cetera. Brown’s most frequent way of getting inside a character’s head and transmitting his or her thoughts is to give us an italicised phrase, usually as a paragraph on its own, for instance: “Where is he?” But he also conveniently uses such italic thought-paragraphs to provide the reader with information that the character would surely not need to repeat to him—or herself, which is rather clumsy, and makes it quite clear that these figures are not characters with a life or a voice of their own but dummies for the author-ventriloquist.

In fact, Brown is very fond of italics in general. Confusingly, many a word in a character’s speech is italicised for emphasis, while he also italicises, on first appearance, any word or phrase likely to be unfamiliar to unscholarly readers (such as “ourobouros” or “magic square”). The former tendency (”What if I told you that a thought Š actually has mass?”) makes his speakers sound rather hysterical; the latter is redolent of a sociology essay. When italics fail him, Brown makes his characters shout in capital letters, often followed by a schoolgirlish “?!”

But, fun though it is, there’s no use going on about Brown’s deficiencies as a stylist. His readers obviously don’t mind, and perhaps even feel (as Anthony Burgess said of novels such as Airport and Wheels) that they are getting solid information along with the story. The fact that the information the book provides is questionable, and that it could be summarised in half a page, is irrelevant.

What is the novel really all about? It’s about a world seething with secret symbolic meanings, which some, including Umberto Eco, might call a paranoid reading of the world, a conspiracy-theorist’s anxious hyper-alertness. (I think everyone who reads Dan Brown should also be required to read Eco’s 1989 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, a hilariously erudite send-up of all this symbol-madness, and a book to which all of Brown’s are a tiny footnote.) The Lost Symbol is also, to the degree that it has a “message”, about how all the world’s religious traditions converge on one meaning—which I will forbear to reveal, in case you want to read the book to uncover it yourself.

At any rate, this meaning is not only banal but nonsense.

I think the best evaluation of The Lost Symbol is to be found in an utterance of the “symbologist” himself. If Brown were a more self-aware writer, I’d suspect him of planting an Eco-like self-interpretation:

“‘Anyway,’ Langdon said, ‘this story [of a Masonic pyramid] falls into a category we symbologists call an “archetypal hybrid”—a blend of other classic legends, borrowing so many elements from popular mythology that it could only be a fictional construct ... not historical fact.’”

Oh, and the one good joke? Langdon sees the image of a knife and fork that indicates a food provider and thinks: “America’s favourite pictogram.”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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