I found The Lost Symbol, the third Robert Langdon book, in the recycling box at work, so I figured I’d live-ish blog my thoughts while reading it.
Dan Brown’s books are a vital read for any aspiring novelist. Not only are they a great example of the kind of stuff that sells, they’re also great guides to how not to torture the English language.
It should of course be perfectly obvious that Brown is an infinitely more successful author than me and even if I ever do make a success of writing, it won’t be to his degree. For this reason, i.e. jealousy, I take the piss out of his work. I know I’m not the first to do this, but it’s cathartic.
FACT: Everything in this book is true, except for all the stuff Dan Brown made up or stole from pointless conspiracy theories that have been debunked years and years before he discovered them on the internet.
Hey, look, a prologue. Let’s see if there’s any point to it.
‘Bloodred’ is not a word, but nice try at creating a neologism where a perfectly normal hyphen will do the job.
‘This colossal edifice, located at 1733 Sixteenth Street NW in Washington, D.C., was a replica of a pre-Christian temple – the temple of King Mausolus, the original mausoleum… a place to be taken after death.’ It’s a good job we got the address of the Freemasons’ temple, because otherwise we’d never have been able to picture it. It’s like Brown has taken a paragraph from another book, thought, “Wow, that’s fascinating,” and decided to include all these fascinating things in a single sentence. Oh, also, could you have guessed without a hack pointing it out to you that King Mausolus is where we get the word ‘mausoleum’ from? And did you know that a mausoleum is a place where you put dead things? Dan Brown novels are educational texts for people who’ve never read a book before and are incapable of working things out for themselves. There’s another page of description of the building after this, including measurements and weights for various statues and so on. The altar’s made out of black Belgian marble. I’m sure that detail will become relevant later on.
At least, I assume they’re the Freemasons, because Brown went through an overlong one-sentence description of how the initiate was dressed, including his trouser leg being pulled up, just like that of a medieval heretic.
‘The initiate let his gaze climb the distinguished white-robed figure standing before him. The Supreme Worshipful Master. The man, in his late fifties, was an American icon, well loved, robust, and incalculably wealthy. His once-dark hair was turning silver, and his famous visage reflected a lifetime of power and a vigorous intellect.’ What is this, gay porn for Bill Gates fans?
Oh, so the character known only as ‘the initiate’ doesn’t die horribly at the hands of the CEO of Microsoft? Instead, he reveals himself as an enemy of Freemasons and that he will bring them down, muahahaha! You know what? I don’t care. There’s nothing in this prologue that either a) reveals anything about the anonymous character other than that he’s the baddie (unless it turns out the Freemasons are even worse, what with their skulls and curses and bodies buried behind secret walls – but then Dan Brown conspiracies turn out to be when they’re exposed to the light of day), or b) sets up the plot in any way. One sentence: ‘The Freemasons are in this story,’ could have replaced this entire prologue.
Incidentally, my prediction as to who the initiate turns out to be is that it’ll be a character we’re meant to trust, but turns out has been playing Langdon all along, like Teabing in The Da Vinci Code, or Ewan McGregor in Angels and Demons. (Spoilers? When a turd is this polished, it’ll never spoil.)
There wasn’t any point to this prologue.
Robert Langdon wakes up from a ‘semi-conscious daydream’. Turns out he’s on a plane. Not just any plane. Thanks to Langdon’s apparent expert knowledge of aircraft (I guess that’s useful when researching medieval symbology), he knows that it’s a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet and has dual Pratt & Whitney engines. In a break from the usual Brownisms, the cabin is merely described as ‘enormous’. I guess he couldn’t find the measurements on Wikipedia.
Langdon has a long-time mentor who is 58 years old and filled the void left in his life after his dad died. Aside from the fact that Tom Hanks was about 55 at the time this book was published, that’s not really a mentor, more a childhood friend. You’d think after two books being turned into successful films starring America’s Dad, Dan Brown would have started morphing book-Langdon into screen-Langdon. Is this authorial integrity? My god, maybe it is.
Also, anyone else think it’s odd that this mentor, so important to Langdon, only gets introduced three books into the series? Still, I guess this is one of those tropes that always pops up in a series of standalone novels, so can’t be helped.
Another unnecessarily detailed description of a tourist attraction, in this case it’s the Washington Monument. ‘All around the spire, the meticulous geometry of streets and monuments radiated outward.’ Know your words, Mr Brown. Washington DC is built on a grid pattern, so nothing radiates out from it at all. (I checked this on Google Maps.)
‘Ten minutes from the Capitol Building, a lone figure was eagerly preparing for Robert Langdon’s arrival.’ This is, I presume, meant to be portentous. However, I just pictured a salivating, over-enthusiastic member of the Washington DC tourist board, eagerly setting out a series of stand-up display boards so that he could explain the plot to Tom Hanks.
Oh, here we are, a villain who gets off on pain. Come on, Dan, you’ve used that with your flagellant Jesuits in The Da Vinci Code.
Uh… Dan… we know you struggle with phrasing, but… ‘The intoxicating feeling of control derived from physical transformation had addicted millions to flesh-altering practices… cosmetic surgery, body piercing, bodybuilding, and steroids… even bulimia and transgendering.’ I guess that this is meant to be from the point of view of Mal’akh, the masochistic self-tattooist, but associating gender realignment surgery with the mental illness bulimia, and associating either of those, even with an ‘even’, to recreational body modification is a little bit obscene. That said, let’s reserve judgement for now; this could always be meant as an indicator of a politically incorrect villain’s worldview.
Mal’akh appears to be the initiate from the prologue. Good job the author didn’t name him then, or we’d know exactly who he was.
I just googled ‘Mal’akh’ to see what it was a reference to. Of course, it’s Biblical. ‘Malakh’ is the Hebrew word for an angelic messenger. Also, the third result was for this character on one fan wiki, and the fourth was for this character’s actual identity, on another fan wiki. Seriously, Dan Brown, you’re having yet another of Robert Langdon’s closest allies turn out to be the villain of the story, hiding behind a secret identity, after using the exact same trope in Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code? Our poor symbologist is going to need a world-renowned therapist by the end of this story, although even then it’ll probably turn out that that therapist is secretly a member of an ancient order of ninjas.
More DC monuments, hammering home the Greco-Roman stylings of the city, just in case no one had ever noticed before.
Ah, book-Langdon’s still in his 40’s. That makes more sense that Peter Solomon (who isn’t actually Mal’akh, as it turns out, rechecking the Google page; it’s someone with a very similar name – my bad) could take him under his wing when Langdon was 12 and yet only be 58 now.
When we first read a physical description of Peter Solomon, it is: ‘Langdon had found humility and warmth in Solomon’s soft gray eyes.’ That was page 24. On page 34, while again waxing lyrical about how awesomely great Solomon is as a historian, we get: ‘It was not Peter Solomon’s brilliance, however, but the humility in his gentle gray eyes that had given Langdon the courage to write him a thank-you letter.’ If, when we meet this guy, he doesn’t consist of a pair of massive, disembodied, yet very friendly grey eyes, hovering in space, I’ll be disappointed.
Solomon’s PA rings Langdon by phone and says, as direct speech, that he wants Langdon to ring Solomon urgently on the telephone number 202-329-5746. On the very next page, Dan Brown went to town with Word’s font and paragraph settings to reproduce a fax that contains the exact same information, down to the phone number 202-329-5746. Did I need to repeat that number? No. Nor did he.
Solomon’s PA explains why Solomon’s been trying to contact Langdon, and just happens to mention that there’s a speech happening in the National Statuary Hall. There’s no indication at all that the conversation has paused. However, Robert Langdon launches into a paragraph-long reminiscence about having been in that room. Did you know, it has 500 folding chairs splayed in a perfect arc, surrounded by thirty-eight life-size statues, in a room that had once served as the nation’s original House of Representatives chamber? Me neither, but thanks, Robert, for providing us with all those facts. Aren’t you meant to be paying attention to Peter Solomon’s PA though?
I hope that we run out of historic landmarks soon, because I don’t need an introduction to a chapter that consists of the opening paragraph to a Wikipedia article on the US Capitol Building. Did you know that it’s 750 feet in length and 350 feet deep, houses more than sixteen acres of floor space and has ‘an astonishing 541 rooms’? Oh, and it’s meant to look more than a bit Roman, for those of you who have managed to go through life without either seeing a Roman temple or the US Capitol Building.
Hey, now we’ve got the copy-paste factsheet out of the way, it turns out that this chapter is from the point of view of a nobody, solely to show how sneaky Mal’akh is. Dun-dun-durrrr!
Really, that’s all that happens in Chapter Four? Bad guy sneaks something metal past a metal detector?
Oh look, another Washington landmark, maybe. Dan Brown’s given the address (4210 Silver Hill Road, just outside D.C.) and given a description of the building, including measurements. However, the name of the place is not mentioned anywhere in this chapter. I would say it was a secret, but typing ‘4210 sil’ into Google brings up that address. Of course, I’ve also been searching for other Lost Symbol- and DC-related stuff this evening, so that makes sense. Also, Google is smart.
It’s the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum Support Center. Not sure if Brown meant to keep that from the reader, which is daft because we know that Peter Solomon is the head of the damn Smithsonian. Maybe the author simply forgot and the editor either didn’t care (the book’s going to sell anyway) or assumed it was meant to be spooky-mysterious.
Katherine Solomon appears for the first time and, in classic Dan Brown fashion, she’s introduced as ‘scientist Katherine Solomon’. It should be noted that the previous mention of her was a memory of Langdon’s, in which she’s described as a scientist involved in the really complicated and cutting-edge discipline of Noetic Science.
However, in a scene from a Noetic scientist’s point of view, there’s not much to hint at what Noetic Science is, and the only hint we’ve had previously is that Langdon thought it sounded more like magic, and Katherine smiled and said he wasn’t far off.
Why is Noetic Science always capitalised, when Langdon’s symbology and other academic fields aren’t?
Ah, according to Google (which predicted what I was looking for as soon as I typed ‘n’ into the search bar – I’m clearly not the first to search for the terms I’ve been looking at tonight!), the reason that Noetic Science is capitalised is to make people think it’s actually a science. According to RationalWiki, it’s ‘an “exploration into the nature and potentials of consciousness using multiple ways of knowing—including intuition, feeling, reason, and the senses” according to its promoters. Aka, a form of bullshit, most famously promoted by Dan Brown in The Lost Symbol.’
Oh look, Katherine’s in communication with Mal’akh, and it turns out that Mal’akh speaks… ominously: ‘Mal’akh smiled to himself. “Sometimes a legend that endures for centuries… endures for a reason.”’ In reality, this telephone conversation would have gone as follows:
Mal’akh: Sometimes a legend that endures for centuries…
Katherine: Hello, hello, are you still there?
Mal’akh: Yes, I was just saying that sometimes a legend that endures for centuries…
Katherine: Sorry, no, you’re breaking up again.
Mal’akh: Oh, for god’s sake, sometimes there’s a bloody reason for it, okay?
And we’ll leave it there for now. So far at least, The Lost Symbol is not as good as Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code, both of which I actually quite enjoyed, despite Dan Brown’s awful prose style and a couple of scenes in the latter that made me actually angry because of their incredible stupidity.
At least the book feels less intensely rubbish than Twilight, a novel that I had to put down and walk away from for a while before I could bring myself to finish it.
You’ll get more when I get around to reading more.
(As a side-note, I’m wondering whether to include blog posts in with my NaNoWriMo word count, or if it falls into the ‘Dude, you’re only cheating yourself’ territory.)