The Lost Symbol

20 Apr

I have never been one of those people who, because I read literary fiction, eagerly anticipate Pulitzer day and read the New York Times Book Review, thinks that genre fiction or plot-driven fiction isn’t worth my time. Yes, I read the National Book Award winner, but I also read fast, easy, fun fiction, like Dan Brown or Nicholas Sparks — which may not be considered by many literary readers to be worthy of publication, let alone worth the time to read it. It’s no accident that The Lost Symbol was the best-selling book of 2009, according to Publisher’s Weekly. As much as we literary types like to put down these poorly written, plot heavy, commercial whales, they do actually have an audience. People BUY them, in a time when people aren’t buying much of anything. Even though I rarely read books from the top ten authors on that list, I can’t fault them for creating popular products, books that are no less worthy of publication than movies like Iron Man or Twilight are of making. They’re certainly not going to win any Oscars, just as The Lost Symbol isn’t going to win the Pulitzer, but that’s not the point is it? They’re fun and fast, and when you’ve got hours of homework piling up and you need a break from using your brain, Dan Brown can certainly do the job.

I read The Lost Symbol a few weeks ago, because I was drowning in schoolwork and I needed an escape in little 5-page chapter increments. I bought the book because I knew both my parents were going to want to read it as well. I’d read both The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons and truthfully enjoyed both. I was fully expecting to dip into the newest book and enjoy it, not least because it takes place in DC and I love actually being familiar with the geography of a book like that. And for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. Robert Langdon jets off to DC and discovers he’s in the middle of a plot to reveal to the public deep, dark secrets that could jeopardize the entire American political sphere and safety as we know it. He’s drawn into a world of the Freemasons, that Brown simultaneously dismisses (through Langdon’s voice) as cloaked in unnecessary rumors that couldn’t possibly be true and embraces the mystery of a group that is lots of fun to speculate about and confirms that no one is who they appear to be. None of us will really understand all the secrets of the Masons, nor the secrets of DC, which is the appeal of the book. And I bought into it, mostly.

But what I didn’t buy into was the reason I tend not to read these kinds of books in the first place: poor writing and obviously literary tools that didn’t work. Part of Robert Langdon’s effectiveness as a narrator is his skepticism — he’s expressing the doubt that all of us feel when we’re reading about these unbelievable situations. Langdon skepticism is Brown’s way of convincing us to buy into the mythology, because Langdon eventually gets convinced, so why shouldn’t we? He’s our guide to suspending disbelief. But in this book, the skepticism feels like a tool. At a certain point, I was a believer, but Langdon was still a doubter. In fact, until the very end of the book — I’m talking the last few pages — he doubted that any of the things he was neck-deep in was real. I was getting extremely annoyed with him, because the skeptic act got old fast. And it also became clear that Brown kept him doubting past the point of believability because he needed someone for the other characters to explain the situation to. If Langdon got it, then Brown’s only method of exposition would be lost, so he kept Langdon pussy-footing around what became obvious and in-your-face, purely it seemed, to maintain his storytelling outlet. It got really, really irritating.

The other part of the book that I was less than happy with — and I’ll try not to give away too much — was the heavy religious tone. I mean, every Brown book has elements of the religious in it — Angels and Demons was about Vatican secrets for goodness sake — but instead of contradicting the all-powerful nature of religion and the secrets that religious groups hold close, The Lost Symbol embraces the idea of God and faith and religion as the basis for personal happiness and as the founding principal of our country. I guess I should make clear that I am not a religious person whatsoever. I have a lot of scorn for organized religion and, while I believe in faith, I don’t believe in God. What I liked about Brown’s other two books was that they acknowledged the flawed nature of man-made religion and its historical impact. This book, to me, felt like a platform for a message praising religion and God. I’m not even sure what Brown thought he was trying to say about God and science and man, but I didn’t buy into it. The most significant clue to me that I was unhappy with the book’s conclusion was that I skimmed the last chapter. The part that supposedly brings it all together, and I couldn’t even read it.

I guess the point of my first paragraph was to emphasize the fact that I didn’t come into The Lost Symbol expecting to hate it because it’s by Dan Brown or because it’s a bestseller. I came into it expecting to like it and to enjoy it because of what it is. I didn’t want to dislike it, I swear, but I had to judge it on the same merits that I would have any other piece of fiction that I’d read and these were flaws I couldn’t look past. It’s not like I read it and said, I think there should be more character development. That’s not an expectation I have for this kind of book. But I do expect that, if you’re going to use a literary tool to a certain end that’s common in this kind of book, you should do it well and effectively.  I know that Brown is capable of it, as well, which is why I was so disappointed. It’s not easy to create that kind of plot with so many elements coming together in the right way, but the writing itself let me down. I am glad to have read it, but it also makes me appreciate the amazing writing ability that’s showcased in Let the Great World Spin which I’m reading now.

While I believe that the Publisher’s Weekly list is filled with books that are popular and escapist for a reason, like Greg, I’m disappointed at the lack of good literary fiction on the list. The Help seems to be the only thing on the list that can be unanimously classified as “literary” and after having watched my mom plow through that this weekend — and only come up for air to cry and say “oh my god, this is amazing” — I have faith that at least people are buying something worthwhile in bulk. I know I said that Wolf Hall would be next after LTGWS but I think my mom would disown me if I don’t read The Help next. There are plenty of people reading The Lost Symbol so if I can put my money toward books that don’t end up on these kinds of lists, I’m happy to do so.


2 Responses to “The Lost Symbol”

  1. Greg Zimmerman April 20, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    You and I struck very similar tones in our respective reviews, except that I sort of dug the theologizing / philosophizing at the end, and you clearly didn’t. But you did a better job than I did of “scene-setting” the literary vs. popular than I did. Very nice piece!

    (Here’s my review, if you’re interested. It was one of the first ones I did when I started blogging, so I cringe a little when I read over it now: )

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