Yes, I know that Dan Brown’s follow-up to his immensely popular “Da Vinci Code” came out almost a year ago. But I’ve only just gotten around to it, and I’m not the only one; the librarian checking me out also mentioned she had been meaning to read it.
Turns out there’s a good reason the media furor failed to move me to purchase “The Lost Symbol” last September; it’s pretty terrible.
Rather than some exotic European locale, Harvard symbologist Robert Langston instead finds himself summoned to Washington, D.C., where his mentor, Smithsonian director and Mason elder Peter Solomon, has been kidnapped. For most of the book Langdon’s sidekick (an excuse for him to explain arcane symbology and the mysterious rituals of secretive cults) is Peter’s sister Katherine Solomon, a “noetic scientist” whose research into the power of the human mind of effect physical change in the world is set to blow wide open the world’s preconceptions about divinity.
Okay, so noetic science is a real thing, apparently, though it seems to be nowhere near changing anything for anyone. Further, its introduction and description in the novel are unsatisfactory and ultimately meaningless. Katherine might as well have been a taxi driver for all the importance noetic science plays in the novel.
Brown goes on to squander a character interestingly introduced and with great potential for either evil or good.
The overlord of the [CIA] Office of Security—Director Inoue Sato—was a legend in the intelligence community. Born inside the fences of a Japanese internment camp in Manzanar, California, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Sato was a toughened survivor who had never forgotten the horrors of war, or the perils of insufficient military intelligence. Now, having risen to one of the most secretive and potent posts in U.S. intelligence work, Sato had proven an uncompromising patriot as well as a terrifying enemy to anyone who stood in opposition. Seldom seen but universally feared, the OS director cruised the deep waters of the CIA like a leviathan who surfaced only to devour its prey.
From that promising start, Sato and her various CIA muscle and intel analysts become baffling distractions from the main plot, often serving as little more than a method of transportation around D.C. for Langdon and Solomon. The problems only go downhill from there: every third paragraph Langdon is forced to remind someone that Masons aren’t some evil society of rich power mongers (they’re just a regular society of power mongers); there’s no possible way that legend or myth could be true (characters often speak in italics); sprinting from landmark to landmark (the Capitol! The Library of Congress! The Botanic Garden! The Washington Monument!); fun facts about D.C. architecture (there really is a Darth Vader gargoyle on the National Cathedral).
Why does “The Lost Symbol” fail where “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons” succeeded? There are numerous differences. The villain is laughably unbelievable (although, to be fair, there is a very well-done twist involving him at the end). The ancient mysteries that form the foundation of the plot date back 150 years, not thousands. Too much time is spent portraying the Masons in a positive light. Too many words are spent on noetic science and the CIA and Albrecht Durer and the metro.
This latest Brown thriller enjoys the same rapid pace and same general storyline as its Langdon predecessors, but it falls short when the secrets promised on page one — secrets worth murdering for, secrets worth dying for — are little more than feel-good, New Age spirituality hokum. The problem with “The Lost Symbol” is that I just didn’t care when the lost symbol was found.