In “The Lost Symbol”, Dan Brown takes his “symbologist” non-hero Robert Langdon on a high-speed twelve-hour tour around Washington. Broadly speaking, it’s like riding pillion on a jetbike driven by a demented architectural historian screaming conspiratorial travelogue descriptions into your ears via a radio-mike. But you probably guessed that already. 🙂

In fact, because you all thought your other questions exactly at the same time (which allegedly multiplies their power exponentially, asserts the book), here are the answers to them:-

  • Yes, it’s formulaic as hell (and po-faced throughout)
  • Yes, it’s a swift read (and for that I truly am grateful)
  • Yes, Dan Brown does flag his ‘big’ plot twist 300 pages too early
  • No, there are no sex scenes (which is probably just as well)
  • No, Robert Langdon is exactly as undeveloped as he was in the Da Vinci Code
  • Yes, the “Noetic Science” angle is just nonsense (and unlike most reviewers, I’ve read Lynne McTaggart’s “The Field”, which is what Dan Brown claimed as his inspiration)

The big reversal of expectations here is that, for a change, the Masons are not “The Conspiracy Behind All The Bad Stuff”. Actually, they’re the patsy good-guys, guarding some kind of mysterious symbolic treasure trove they don’t really understand, while All The Bad Stuff spirals out of control around them. In fact, because Dan Brown spends most of the novel stressing how darn nice the Masons are, and how they espouse a kind of universally-benign syncretist meta-religion (like apron-wearing Rastafari, De Trut’ In All Trut’s), his whole project comes over like a colossally misjudged Masonic recruiting handbook. Join us, we’re ancient and have obscure dippy rituals, but we Do Good Works, so that’s OK. Oh, and the Shriners are a joke, got that?

“So what’s your problem with that, Nick?”, I hear you saying. Well… even though Robert Langdon is notionally a “symbologist” (a made-up term that broadly matches iconographer / iconologist, if you don’t examine it too closely), he is still basically an academic historian, right? Hence, what I just don’t get from start to finish is how you can square his being a proper historian with his supposed near-obsessive interest in the kind of hallucinogenic pseudo-history clap-trap that Masonic historians have spent centuries punting out. For every one genuine story in the canon, there are a hundred fake ones: which is a lousy hit rate to be dealing with, even for a symbologist.

It’s true that the inconvenient truth behind the history of History is that it did start out as an exercise in adapting or falsifying marginal evidence to support otherwise untenable ideological claims… apologetics, by any other name. And it is also true that the various Washington monuments are indeed filled with a kind of cheerfully jaunty Man-As-Technological-God secular myth-making – mythopoiesis (if that’s not too scary a word). But as for Langdon buying in to any of it? Doesn’t work for me, sorry.

Actually, I think Langdon’s key attribute (his eidetic memory) is a ‘tell’ for what Brown uses him for – an historical memory machine, a robotic repository able to dredge up every wonky numerological / etymological / mythological fantasy ever devised, while remaining indifferent to all of them. Langdon doesn’t need to feel love, or loyalty, or lust: his mind is a blank canvas, doodled upon by X thousand years of cultural graffiti artists. Even though at one point Brown has a brief chuckle at the Wiki-esque shallow learning of modern students, Langdon himself functions as nothing more complex than a disbelieving walking Wikipedia of the occult and marginal… an erudite ‘conspirapedia’ to help fatten up the page count by a couple of hundred pages or so.

As for what Brown does with all those references… Cipher Mysteries readers should know by now that any time you see (say) John Dee, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and (my personal favourite anti-subject) the Rosicrucians come up, you’re normally in the presence of someone fairly credulous – and sadly Brown (who namechecks these and dozens of other similar figures) never gives the impression of being alert enough to stay wise to the historical perils these present. Ghastly.

But what of “The Lost Symbol”‘s cryptography? Well… there’s a little bit of Masonic pigpen (though the fact that simple pigpens can be rotated seems to have been overlooked); the final “substitution” cipher is actually more steganographic than cryptographic; yet there’s some nice stuff on magic squares (no, not magic circles). And that’s about it. All the same, though fairly skimpy, this actually fills me with a deep sense of relief – relief that Brown didn’t try to be too clever-clever with the historical crypto side of things, for which (I’m sorry to say) he clearly doesn’t have much of a feel. Yes, the Dorabella Cipher, the Voynich Manuscript, and even the Kryptos sculpture get flagged: but these are not the main deal.

For me, the worst part of the whole book by a mile is the lack of any functional intimacy or closeness between any of the characters – even though I do appreciate that a lot of technical craft has gone into its plotting and overall construction, 500 pages is a long way to drive without any emotional attachments or transformation to help the reader along. This prolonged drabness caps even The Da Vinci Code’s sustained emotional superficiality: unfortunately… given how bad a film that first book got turned into, I truly shudder at the thought of how bad a film “The Lost Symbol” promises to be. Having done a fair bit of screenwriting myself, I can say that some story problems just can’t be fixed without major, major surgery… and this would seem to have plenty.

15 thoughts on “Review of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”…

  1. Thank you for reading the book “for us”. I was wondering if you could elaborate on Brown’s mention of the Voynich… in what context does the author bring it up? Does he relate it at all to the story line? Thanks, Rich.

  2. No, it’s just a throwaway comment on Dan Brown’s part. He does (briefly) try to weave the Kryptos sculpture in to the main storyline, but that (again) is merely an aside.

    Heaven help us if he ever properly points Robert Langdon at the VMs… 😮

  3. Thanks Nick… good review, BTW. I’ve avoided the DaVinci code, and now I can avoid this one… nothing personal against Brown or his writing, I only want to avoid reading these sort of historical fictions… the danger is some sort of fictoid (coined that… like it? … it’s like the opposite of a “factoid”) might stick, and I won’t remember where it came from in coming months. Like the fake footage from Tora, Tora, Tora finding it’s way into real documentaries of Pearl Harbor.

  4. Oh well… nothing new under the sun… it seems “fictoid” has been around:

    “A factoid that is false or unsupported by evidence, but gets into public circulation anyway. Once it is repeated and quoted enough times, it gains a life of its own, and people assume it is true because they get it from multiple sources, even though the original source is flawed or unverified, or the information turns out to be false.”

  5. Dan Brown certainly likes to pepper his narrative with questionable etymologies and dubious historical claims, which are indeed the kinds of “fictoid” you’d want to avoid. 🙂

  6. Whoever’s word it is, I quite like it. 🙂

  7. Dennis on October 2, 2009 at 8:49 pm said:

    Good review, Nick! Brown seems to have missed that semiotics is the academic discipline he has in mind for Langdon. In fact, this sounds like “Foucault’s Pendulum” without a sense of humor.

    At least “The Da Vinci Code” was a fairly enjoyable read. I read one book-length review of the liberties Brown takes with the facts. 🙁

    I didn’t know you’d written screenplays! Cool.

    Various people have noted that many movies these days have poor screenplays but that the good actors and actresses nevertheless save them! Sounds like this one is beyond saving…


  8. To produce films, you have to trade all the various elements off against each other – and “bankable” stars often get the vote over other elements of the production. Unfortunately, it seems that the cult of the celebrity has caused the balance point to tip too far in the direction of the actors over (good) screenwriters… oh well!

  9. Ernest Lillie on October 3, 2009 at 6:29 am said:

    As someone who has also dabbled a bit with screenwriting, I quite agree with your assessment of the hold that celebrities have over the finished product in films. Indeed — many popular films are hugely different from their literary beginnings ( Dracula, Dune and Hannibal leap to mind ). Mediocre novels can be vastly improved by talented directors/screenwriters just as masterpieces can turn into crap when filtered by the “Vision” of a director or hands-on star.

    I can see it now:

    An Indiana Jones style blockbuster in which a vast underground labyrinth is discovered — our intrepid adventurers race through it using the Voynich Balneological section as a map — solving puzzle locks that are coded by the circular diagrams spread through the manuscript — coming before a vast, mechanical assembly of 8 great inscribed disks rotating around an even larger central wheel containing a sealed gateway to . . .

    I know . . . I know . . . but someone would get mad if I gave away the ending — wouldn’t they?

  10. Yeah, nonsense like that pretty much writes itself, a situation which the studios are keen to encourage. 🙁

    Actually, the whole idea of “script” is both out of date and back to front: most films commissioned now start from the premise “given that we have access to bankable star X, what kind of main character can we construct around the limited range of emotions that he/she can express?”. That is, it is more useful to look at most modern films as bespoke vehicles constructed to drive bankable stars to their adoring public. In that model, screenwriters are seen more as textual engineers than as writers… but you knew all that anyway. 🙁

    Just so you know, my own Voynich film pitch has no infernal rotating machines, just a great story about love, jealousy, and ceremonial magic. 🙂

  11. Marke Fincher on October 4, 2009 at 7:07 pm said:

    Hey Nick, did you see that episode of “Rebus” on ITV recently which featured the Voynich Manuscript?

    (in which “rebus” declares as if it were unequivocal that it is written in an ‘artificial language’)

    Still waiting for it to get a mention on the Teletubbies….after all they have been speaking Voynichese for years now!


  12. Hi Marke,

    “Rebus” is one of the few shows not yet available on the ITV online programme service: I did read up about the episode, however, but (beyond your “artificial language” quotation) it didn’t seem that Voynich-y.

    Teletubbies, however… I have to say I’m particularly impressed by the way that they’ve settled on Currier A over Currier B: yes, I’m talking about the higher relative incidence of “e-o”. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick….

  13. Robert Langdon can figure out all kinds or arcane symbols and and codes, but like in the previous 2 books…he remains clueless to the signs put out by the women around him. The poor guy can’t get laid. So here he saves the lead female characters life, and she’s kissing and hugging him and all…and Robert does NOTHING. He must be a Vulcan or something, absolutely no emotion or sex drive.

  14. Maybe that’s supposed to be some kind of in-joke – that Langdon can read cryptograms, but he can’t read women?

    Or… maybe DB finds Vulcan characters easier to write, heaven knows there’s enough of them in his books. 😉

    You choose! 🙂

  15. Diane on March 6, 2010 at 2:52 am said:

    Maybe he likes his women more enigmatic?

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