The Lost Symbol
by Dan Brown
A few years back I read Dan Brown’s first two Robert Langdon novels, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. I remembered the tales as being outlandish but entertaining, yet some of my friends and family held a different opinion: They deemed Brown a talentless hack. That’s why I felt compelled to read his latest novel, The Lost Symbol; only in the last couple of years had I begun to read books with a critical eye, and recognize bad writing for what it was. I needed to find out once and for all: Was Dan Brown really as bad as people said?
Oh, you better believe it.
In The Lost Symbol, Robert Langdon gets summoned to Washington, D.C. to blah blah blah yackedy shmackedy. The story itself doesn’t really matter. Really, the characters and plot elements are only there for one purpose: to build the suspense. And, of course, when I say suspense, I mean short, formulaic chapters filled with cheap literary gimmicks.
Let’s begin with the main gimmick. Dan Brown employs one little trick repeatedly and unabashedly throughout the book, and that (along with some other telltale evidence) is what proved to me early on that I’m already a far, far better writer than he’ll ever be. What he does is this: He ends every chapter with some great revelation or unveiling. Now, this would actually be a fine way to keep the reader interested, except he never lets the reader in on the surprise! Instead, he’ll give you something like, “Langdon looked upon the object, and knew with utmost certainty that nothing would ever be the same again.” Then, chapter break. If you’re lucky, you’ll find out what the object is a few chapters later, rather than fifty chapters later.
In my writing, I also try to end chapters with a twist, or leave characters in the middle of a tense situation, surefire ways to keep the reader reading. The difference: I strive to shock the reader, whereas all Brown does is show us the shock on his character’s face.
Which brings me to my second point. If you ever deign to read a Dan Brown novel, one of the first things you may notice is that all of his characters are pretty much shocked all the time. And he’s not coy about it, either; instead of letting a character’s shock shine through in his dialogue or actions, Brown comes right out and tells you – repeatedly – that the figure is amazed, astonished, or astounded, and usually at the most mundane things.1 Actually, maybe it’s a good thing he does us this service; if he didn’t tell us, we’d have no idea that the idea or the object or whatever was supposed to be shocking in the first place.
Some other things that bothered me:
- Often, characters withhold information from other characters – and from us, even if we’re following their inner monologue – for the sole purpose of moving the plot along.
- Robert Langdon is well-versed in Freemason lore, but believes every single aspect of it is myth. Even after a half-dozen are proven to be real, in relatively quick succession, what does he think the next time one comes up? Myth.
- At the beginning of the book, the Masons want to keep all their secrets secret, and go to great lengths to do so. By the end, they’re actively helping Robert Langdon uncover them, even though he himself is reluctant to do so.
- Brown did a ton of research to write this book, and goddammit, he wasn’t going to let any of it go to waste, whether or not the information was relevant. He imparts most of the research via flashbacks to earlier discussions or classroom lectures, and in one fateful instance, a flashback within a flashback.2 If his editor hadn’t been a spinless pansy, s/he’d have gutted the book with a chainsaw and cut out about 150 pages.
- Brown uses too many pet words. For instance, he apparently likes to over-use the word apparently, despite that in almost every case there’s nothing “apparently” about it; it just is. Then, there are a couple chapters in the middle where everything’s potent, and one character refers to his sex organ multiple times as, well, “his sex organ.” Not his penis. Not his cock, his dick, or some other penile slang.3 His sex organ.
- By the end of the book, three of the main characters have nearly died. Yet, whether they’re dealing with loss of blood, loss of hand, or loss of credulous readers, the characters just keep on trucking. (“No, I don’t need to go to the hospital! It’s just a flesh wound! Now come with me, so I can let you in on things us Masons have kept secret for hundreds of years!”)
1 Though, of course, you have to wait at least 3 chapters after the character’s initial shock to find out just how mundane.
2 Both discussions and lectures are completely unrealistic. Every time, the characters just happen to speak of the exact details that are important to the story, or argue about the very points Brown is anxious to dispel, and always in regard to the most obscure of subjects. In the lectures, the high schoolers participate enthusiastically and applaud the speaker, and the college students are way too knowledgeable even for Harvard folk. In essence, these scenes feel more staged than the rest of the book... which is saying something.
3 As opposed to penal slang, such as slammer. Although, it would have been fun if he’d called it his hoosegow.