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Posts Tagged ‘Lit Crit’

Writing a good addiction memoir is difficult — or maybe it’s reading an addiction memoir that’s difficult, at least for non-addicts. The line between drug-induced hallucination and psychotic episode is blurry, and sympathizing with the addict in question, while of course eschewed in public, is surprisingly difficult in private, where one is certain that could never happen.

“Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” (ignore the pompous title; a Künstlerroman this is not) is Bill Clegg’s attempt at an addiction memoir. At points engaging, even engrossing, something nevertheless seems off about the entire venture. Could it be because Clegg is a successful literary agent rather than a life-long writer? ‘Portrait’ isn’t without merit, but despite its occasional literary flair remains unsatisfactory and ultimately unconvincing.

Clegg was a young, handsome, successful literary agent in New York; he had his own agency, a dedicated boyfriend and $70,000 in his checking account. Oh, and a healthy crack habit. It had apparently been manageable for a time, but ‘Portrait’ recounts his two-month binge in which he blows his bank account on an unholy amount of crack, cirrhotic gallons of vodka, various hookers and rooms at all of Manhattan’s upscale hotels. Actually, it’s the hotels — the W, the Gansevoort, a place called the Giraffe — that set ‘Portrait’ apart from grittier addict memoirs like James Salant’s “Leaving Dirty Jersey” or James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” (quasi-fictional as it is). Clegg’s binge in no way can be called gritty; in fact, short the burn scars on his hands from hot stems and the rapid weight loss that required half a dozen new holes punched in his belt, Clegg’s adventure could almost be mistaken an expensive mental breakdown. His drugs are brought to his rooms by dealers; he can pick up men on the street simply by asking if they “party,” lingo for users; when he becomes too gaunt for his old sweater he buys one from Saks so as not to look so obviously like a crackhead.

The binge is entertaining enough, and at times Clegg’s prose even displays some literary intelligence — his line about the first time he tried crack, for instance: “It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand.” Most of the time, however, his writing is merely competent exposition or, even worse, forced prosaic device, as if he had read about cut-up technique and just had to try it. Perhaps even more strangely, for a book about heightened sensory detail through illegal drugs, Clegg generally steers clear of description and sensation. Expensive lunches with high-powered authors go unrecounted; physical sensation, including sex, remains vague and indiscriminate; architectural sketches remain sterile. If this was Clegg’s intention, an attempt to put focus on the crack itself, he fails; so much time is spent describing the minute hand movements of cab drivers ‘Portrait’ begins to read more like an absurdly extensive screenplay rather than a poignant memoir.

Clegg’s crack-induced paranoia is probably the most engaging part of ‘Portrait.’ Almost unfailingly Clegg mistakes passersby for undercover DEA agents, cab drivers as part of an elaborate plot to capture him, flashing lights as spy cameras gathering evidence. Waiting for a plane to take off, for instance, Clegg suddenly suspects the entire aircraft is a set-up, and asks the flight attendant if the scheme isn’t a little overboard to nab one user. Post-9/11, she is concerned, and the captain removes Clegg from the plane. “I notice his jacket, its hokey military mimicry — epaulets, stripes. Like everything else on the plane, his uniform — shabby compared to the memory of my father’s — looks like a flimsy, slapped-together costume.” Notably, he never realizes, at the time, at least, that his paranoia is a symptom; instead, he merely flees the situation and momentarily regains some mental composure.

Adding to the confusion are Clegg’s haphazard and inconclusive flashbacks to childhood. He seems to be grasping at straws when it comes to identifying the root causes of his addiction, binge and downfall. Is it his brusque, gruff father (a TWA pilot, as previously noted), who never showed Clegg real affection? Maybe his distant mother? His college-age coming out, which doesn’t come across as overly distressing? Clegg seems to most blame his addiction on a weird and poorly described bout of urinary problems that required him to dance and shout and which left blood stains on his underwear and which typically went unremarked upon by his mother. Clegg succeeds in portraying the urination trouble painfully, but blanches from anything close to a diagnosis or explanation. Despite these childhood traumas, Clegg seems unaware of his greatest problem, the insecurity that seems to trigger his addiction; in multiple offhanded comments, Clegg notes that he never felt adequate professionally, that despite his wild success he lived every day fearing that someone would discover he knows less about literature than he lets on. “I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.” This fear seems to be the culmination of some kind of inferiority complex, and Clegg plays right into it throughout the entire book, even at the end, never seeing or admitting the true roots of his addiction problems.

Of course, Clegg’s blindness is understandable, empathetic even. Whether an addict recognizing the former terrors of their crashing lives or the sober vowing never to end up blowing $70,000 on crack, few, if any, ever truly understand our own difficulties and obsessions. Clegg’s portrait may be incomplete, but a good deal about him and about the psychology of addiction can be gleaned from those brushstrokes he has managed to put down.

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The Forbidden Experiment has long tantalized linguists, anthropologists and psychologists for the possible insights into the human mind and sociality it could uncover. The experiment involves raising a child in isolation to study how his or her mind develops in the absence of other people; it is forbidden, of course, because of the moral and ethical concerns of depriving a child in such a way.

The plot of Emma Donoghue’s “Room” isn’t quite the Forbidden Experiment, but it comes close, and she executes the fiction as well as any hypothetical or thought experiment could be expected. The narrator is Jack, who turns five years old in the first pages. It quickly becomes apparent that something is not quite right in his world; inanimate objects are referred to as proper nouns: Wardrobe, Bed, Plant, Meltedy Spoon. When Ma, Jack’s mother, points out snow on Skylight that’s blocking “God’s yellow face,” Jack says, “There’s a little bit of light at Skylight’s top, the rest of her is all dark. TV snow’s white but the real isn’t, that’s weird.”

Filtered through the innocent Jack’s perception, subtle clues and hints begin to add up to a sinister image. There’s no way to discuss the novel without revealing the basic premise, but the novel’s conceit is quickly expunged and so little is lost by a brief description. Jack casually illustrates details and daily routines with Ma that don’t quite add up: he clearly believes all reality exists within the 11-by-11-foot room they occupy; Scream, when they both yell at the top of their lungs and then listen closely (“You never know,” Ma says, the explanation slipping off Jack like he’s made of Teflon); Jack occasionally wakes at night to Ma flicking Lamp on-off-on-off-on-off, clearly signaling for help through Skylight.

Over many pages what is cleverly revealed is that Ma (real name unknown) was kidnapped seven years ago at the age of 19 and locked by her captor, known only as Old Nick, in a soundproof, escape-proof shed in his backyard. The skylight includes a shatter-proof mesh. The floors cover a chain link fence that makes digging out impossible. The door is operated by an electronic keypad, and Old Nick isn’t sharing the code. Descriptions of their captor coming to rape Ma almost every night — an act, thankfully, not at all understood by Jack, who hides in Wardrobe — are disturbing enough until one does the math and realizes that Old Nick must be Jack’s biological father.

Soon enough Ma makes it clear that they aren’t safe any longer because their captor lost his job and has been unable to find new work. Keeping up a backyard prison while feeding two mouths, even when you undernourish them, is costly, and Ma fears the bank foreclosing his house because Nick would then be forced to kill them. Despite the obvious horrors they face, Donoghue makes identifying with the child narrator not only easy but compulsory. Jack is impressively optimistic, obviously a byproduct of his youthful innocence and yet a trait that makes him honestly endearing. In fact, Jack’s comfort in Room is so sympathetic Ma’s talk of escape begins to sound both nutty and frightening. Leaving Room means leaving behind literally the only place he has lived in his entire life, as well as the cast of objects for which he has created supplementary personalities. Room (and “Room”) are claustrophobic and claustrophilic simultaneously.

“Room” is deceptively simple. Even throwaway details inform the deeply empathic story. In one sense “Room” is about the choices an imprisoned mother must make; as she notes when defending raising Jack to believe the universe consists solely of Room, what was she supposed to tell him, a whole fun world existed but that he could have no part in it? That lie, as much as it was meant to protect Jack, also served to protect Ma. Making Jack believe the images on TV are not real (including Dora the Explorer, Jack’s favorite cartoon, as apparently Dora is the favorite even of unsocialized, imprisoned children) limits their worldview to Room, and thus limits the anxiety and despair that would come with a full realization of their situation.

Donoghue’s prose seems crude and reductionist at times, but it is a true challenge to write earnestly and authentically in a child’s voice — especially one in so psychologically unusual a condition. The language Jack develops is also insufficient to properly describe the world at large and his experiences in it, but again this only serves to reflect Jack’s alien feelings toward the world. “Room” presents an allegory — personal, political, societal — wherein the past seems idyllic but in truth was dangerous and disturbing. Nevertheless, we, like Jack and Ma, have to move forward into a world that’s larger than we can imagine, one frightening in its diversity and seeming infinity but a world ultimately safer and healthier than our limited origins.

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These days more and more people are overweight, but most of us don’t like to talk about it. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, however, is eager recount being “born round,” a favorite saying of his immigrant Italian grandmother, in his delicious memoir “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater.”

Bruni can hardly be blamed for his childhood huskiness, although he does try, noting that as a baby he would eat two hamburger patties and, denied a third, vomit up the first two in a hissy rage. Okay, so maybe he was a big eater. But he’s Italian, and his mother and grandmother live up to every Olive Garden-fueled stereotype and more. Grandma Bruni would tell Frank he looks fat, then ply him with pastas and meats and sweet desserts and was, of course, personally insulted if he didn’t eat everything eagerly. The dichotomy is especially ironic coming from his perpetually dieting mother, who took great pride in whipping up 50-serving batches of lasagna and kept an entire freezer full of food in the garage. “She was mystified by, and censorious of, families who didn’t. How could they be sure to have enough kinds and cuts of meat on hand, enough varieties of ice cream to choose from? Was that really any way to live?”

Interestingly, for his childhood and much of his adult life Bruni was only 10 to 15 pounds overweight, fairly significant as a 7-year-old but much less so as a tall high school student. Bruni was a swimmer, and a good one to boot, enough to place nationally in several events. Helpfully placed pictures throughout “Born Round” provide a chronological visual of his weight, and as a high school student he appears merely healthily filled out, not overweight at all. In this sense his plight seems less desperate as he pales in comparison to the hoards of fat Americans today. However, he regains credibility in his early thirties when he ballooned to 268 pounds. He notes that he began to avoid cameras in the Capitol building, where he was covering Congress, after one day Bruni in all his rotundity appeared in the background of a politician’s front-page snapshot.

Bruni’s prose is lean but satisfying (come on! I had to say it), forsaking deep literary description in favor of self-deprecating reflection and reconstructed conversations about quiche lorraine. Nevertheless, Bruni manages to deftly portray his lifelong struggle with his weight in a way that is neither pitiable nor disgusting, merely engrossing. He sticks with his hefty narrative loyally, detouring into topics such as his homosexuality, his journalism career or his mother’s early death from cancer sparsely and typically in ways that relate back to his weight.

Recounting his first date in college, for example, Bruni notes that he wore a loose black windbreaker while making out in the guy’s apartment. “As long as I kept it on, he couldn’t get a good sense of my body and possibly discover that I wasn’t as trim as he’d hoped I was and as I meant to be.” Bruni’s weight and its various psychological implications clearly took a serious toll on his emotional growth; his entire adult life is marked by only a handful of serious relationships, and most of those in his late thirties, after he had begun to come to terms with his body.

Furthermore, Bruni’s considerable writing career — marked by a Pulitzer-nominated feature writing stint in Detroit, covering George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign for the New York Times and working as the Times’ Rome bureau chief and ultimately restaurant critic — is largely treated as a side note to his ballooning weight. Bruni rarely mentions his occupation except to describe the copious meals provided Bush’s press detail (apparently a thick slice of RNC money that year went to egg-and-sausage breakfasts, cheese platters and steak dinners with martinis for the press). As well, of course, as his five-year run as the Times’ restaurant critic, a job that by necessity meant eating dinner out around nine times a week — yes, nine, as some nights meant multiple dinners. The final portion of the book recounting his adventures trying to remain disguised as he reviewed entire menus and brought the ire of haughty restaurateurs is largely a departure from his weight-loss narrative. He does describe how he managed to maintain a healthy weight while scarfing down sampling every dessert each restaurant offered, but by that point in his life Bruni seemed to have a handle on his love handles.

By necessity “Born Round” is an intensely personal memoir. There’s a lot to love: his descriptions of Rome’s fresh cheeses; his mother outing him to his family one by one; his elaborately gluttonous family Thanksgivings. There are a few things to hate, perhaps most notably his irritatingly frequent use of the word “epicurean.” Bruni does succeed, however, in portraying his weight obsession not only with comedy but also poignantly. His reflection, with the benefit of hindsight, never crosses the line into trite observations about the obesity epidemic or a self-pitying regret-fest. Instead, he deftly and accurately explores the psychology of the overweight, the ups and downs and sideways, ultimately overcoming a mental block and fully forming emotionally as well as physically.

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The film version of “Never Let Me Go” is set to premiere soon, and in anticipation I dusted off my hardcover copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel for a reread, reminding me of this book’s provoking conceptuality and striking prose.

I have to warn you: “Never Let Me Go” reveals its quietly horrifying secret agonizingly slowly, and in fact never details the truth in its entirety. However — while this is a spoiler alert — the true beauty of the novel lies not in its plot but rather in its narrative reflection.

Kathy H., now 31, narrates the novel. She, along with her friends Ruth and Tommy, were once children at a prim English boarding school called Hailsham (deconstructionists, have at that name). Ruth is Kathy’s best friend-slash-occasional antagonist; Tommy, Ruth’s boyfriend but a close friend of Kathy’s. The ups and downs of their triangular relationship concern much of the novel’s narrative. By most accounts Kathy’s childhood was roughly similar to any other boarding school student’s: memorizing poetry, gossiping with her girlfriends while watching boys play football on the pitch, occasionally sneaking off for snogging sessions.

That familiar varnish quickly gives way to sinister clues about the children’s nature. Their teachers are referred to as guardians, and they stress to the children that remaining healthy on the inside is of the utmost importance. Art takes up a lot of the children’s time, and a mysterious woman known only as “Madame” comes to collect the best work every now and then, for what purpose it is unclear. Grown-up Kathy offhandedly mentions that she is a “carer” for other “donors.” Neither Kathy nor Ruth nor Tommy nor any other children ever discuss their parents, odd even at a fancy boarding school such as Hailsham.

The reality of these children’s lives is so slowly revealed that what could have been a cheap melodramatic revelation instead seems to come naturally, even fatefully. Kathy and the rest are clones, and their lives predetermined; in their early twenties, their organs will be harvested, one at a time, and eventually they will “complete,” a wickedly novel term for death. First, however, they serve as “carers,” nurses who stay with recent donors for medical and psychological support.

But the sci-fi horror story Ishiguro presents, while fascinating in its own right, is not the main event of “Never Let Me Go.” The literary center of the novel is not organ harvests but rather the relationships between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as they at once know and yet do not know their fate. Even as tots the children are vaguely aware that they will one day be “donors”; the deep meaning of that revelation, however, understandably escapes their adolescent minds. It’s easy to forget, as well, that these people will die so young for a cause they don’t truly understand while they play and learn at Hailsham.

The novel’s name comes from a song Kathy plays again and again, a martini jazz hit called “Never Let Me Go.” The girl interprets the lyrics (“Oh baby, baby, baby, never let me go…”) as those of a once-barren woman now blessed with a child, fearful some terrible calamity will befall it. At one point Kathy finds herself alone in her dormitory, and plays the tape while dancing with a pillow substitute for a baby. As she turns she notices Madame standing in the doorway, watching her and weeping. Kathy and later Tommy assume it is because they cannot have children — another certain sign something is different about these Hailsham students.

Madame provides some of the best clues to their fate and ultimately explains a great deal about their lives. Although she remains outwardly calm while visiting Hailsham, Madame tenses and shudders when the children come to near her. Kathy notices her discomfort but never deduces its meaning until years later, when she is serving as Tommy’s carer and they track down Madame. There Kathy dredges up the dancing incident, and Madame explains that she did not see Kathy dancing with a baby. The revelation of why Madame really wept is too intricately attached to the plot to fairly recount here; nevertheless it remains a haunting parable worth the confusion first required to understand it.

Ishiguro’s prose is generally satisfying. Written from Kathy’s perception, the novel is an elongated memory stretching over a short lifetime. Too often Ishiguro clumsily foreshadows events by ending a section with some variation on, “And then something memorable happened next that changed everything.” Perhaps the phrasing is simply part and parcel of the fictional memoir, but its repeated use fleshes out the absurdity of the statement. Notably, that’s the greatest problem with “Never Let Me Go,” assuming one is open-minded enough to allow for science-fiction to be considered a great work of literature.

Much of “Never Let Me Go” is concerned with whether the children clones are human, if they can love and be loved, if they have souls. Ishiguro does a convincing job of leaving that consideration ambiguous, even in the end, after all the cards are laid on the table. Kathy’s on-and-off feuding with Ruth is real, but her flirtation with and eventual professed love for Tommy rings hollow. In any other novel that hollowness would be a pitfall; for Ishiguro, however, it is the very purpose of the novel, and he deftly obscures whether their love truly is hollow, meaning they have no souls, or if it is not true love at all, a possibly greater tragedy.

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In this age of national insecurity and economic malaise, remembering the pre-9/11 days can be a daunting challenge. It’s a delicate mood to recreate, considering the hindsight provided by those terrorist attacks, but certainly there were feelings of overly confident institutionalization and intellectual pretentiousness. Could 9/11 have originated in such superiority, the fated effect to a snobbish cause?

In her novel “The Emperor’s Children,” Claire Messud tries to capture the professional and personal dissatisfaction of a generation facing its quarterlife crisis. She depicts three late-twentysomethings trudging through Manhattan in the spring and summer of 2001: Danielle Minkoff, a TV documentary producer who wants to cover weighty topics like Australia’s reparations to Aborigines but instead is forced to produce reports on liposuction; Marina Thwaite, a would-be author who can’t bring herself to finish a book on how children’s clothing reflects society; and Julius Clarke, a part-time critic for the Village Voice obliged by his rent to temp at corporations in his only suit.

Marina is by far the most developed character of the three old friends from Brown. She is suppressed by the shadow of her wildly successful father, Murray Thwaite, a famous journalist and liberal commentator. Her manuscript on children’s fashion, titled “The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes,” is going nowhere; she has no job, living in her parents’ spacious apartment, regularly attending yoga classes and otherwise idling away her time. Marina’s privilege is smothering in its ability to prevent her from ever actually doing anything. She notes that she wants to do something worthwhile, but nearing 30 she has never held the entry-level jobs or put in the time and hard work usually necessary to obtain to such a position.

Danielle and Julius enjoy their own plotlines. He takes up with a corporate hotshot who prefers cocaine to family gatherings, popping into the main story every now and then to document his downfall — or rather, his fall from the low perch he already occupied. Danielle plods along through her documentarian career, forced to watch as Marina’s personal and professional lives suddenly right themselves. Into Marina’s life floats Ludovic Seeley, an Australian editor looking to found a new, cutting-edge cultural magazine in New York. Marina and Ludo meet through Danielle and a chance lunchtime encounter, and Danielle spends the rest of the novel resenting Marina as she simultaneously falls in love with Ludo and takes a top editorship at his new magazine.

The last member of the cast is Murray Thwaite’s nephew, and Marina’s cousin, 19-year-old Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, raised in some backwater New York town and dropped out of SUNY-Oswego. He’s certainly not dumb; Bootie was accepted to Harvard, but hid that from his mother, ostensibly so she wouldn’t be forced to pay his tuition but in reality another aspect of his complicated superiority-cum-victimization complex. He is, perhaps, the novel’s most pretentious character, spurning collegiate authority and always nose-deep in Walden and Thoreau; Bootie is concurrently crippled by inaction, never able to finish a book or compose an essay, something he swore to do in the furthering of his own autodidactic education. Bootie uses his family relationship to move in with the Thwaites, and ultimately works as a secretary for his storied uncle. Bootie quickly decides, however, that Murray is not as authentic as he portrays himself in the media and his books, and plots to reveal the truth through a tell-all piece in Ludo’s magazine (nevermind that Marina would be the one to edit it).

The stage thus set, the characters unwittingly hurtle toward that crisp September day, spurred on by pretentiousness, self-satisfaction and “the absence of any limitations against which to rebel.” Messud’s prose is thick — physically and literarily — and endlessly engrossing. Marina and Julius and Bootie are eminently unlikable yet unnervingly reflective of the pre-9/11 Ivy League-literary class. “The Emperor’s Children” is an engaging comedy of manners that deftly passes judgment on the intellect-for-the-hell-of-it attitude so pervasive nine years ago.

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Most people have been trapped at an airport for at least a few hours. Usually that time is spent playing games on a smart phone, devouring Stieg Larsson novels or stirring an airport bar martini with an olive. But Benjamin R. Ford, the protagonist of Jonathan Miles’ first novel “Dear American Airlines,” hunkers down to compose a long letter (or short novella, if you so desire) to the eponymous airliner, demanding a refund and recounting his fractured life in some attempt at emotional catharsis.

Ford is on his way from New York to California to his estranged daughter’s wedding. During an increasingly long and unwanted bad weather layover at O’Hare in Chicago, Ford pens this letter, initially requesting a refund; he had already missed the rehearsal dinner, and each passing second brought him closer to missing the ceremony itself. Ford also spends several pages taking potshots at American Airlines and the airport itself, certainly a treat for the contemporary weary traveler. But Ford is a rambler, and he soon moves away from the $392.68 the airline owes him.

As he eventually recalls for the poor AA customer service employee charged with reading his epistle, his only offspring was the result of an ill-fated relationship in his early 20s. Working as a part-time poet and a full-time bartender in his hometown of New Orleans, Ford temporarily shacks up with Stella, a grad student and fellow bard. Their coupling doomed even from the start — Stella, Ford recounts, thought she could change his teetering-on-alcoholic ways — their relationship is (very) temporarily stabilized by an unintended pregnancy. Their daughter, also named Stella but adorably referred to as Speck by Ford, is, however, ultimately unable to keep her parents together. Although they don’t split for months after the event, Ford knew their days were numbered when Stella Sr. smashed their only water glass in his face, cutting both his skin and any hope for a future together.

Soon the rambling nature of the letter unfolds; he moves back in time to his New Orleans childhood, memories of his emotionally unstable mother and quiet Polish father. His father had been caught up in a Holocaust camp during the war, and with his new life in America he became an exterminator. Well, not entirely; Henryk Gniech (his original name, before unwittingly changing it to Henry Ford, the most American name he could think of) released any animals he caught, including a critter hiding in Ford’s mother’s attic, at the same dock he arrived at as an immigrant. Ford’s father provides most of the hearty and touching aspects of the narrative; especially memorable is his joke that later in life, as a mechanic on Ford automobiles, he was entering the “family business.”

Ford’s mother, on the other hand, is some kind of schizophrenic. When Ford was a child, Miss Willa, as she was known, would occasionally kidnap him and manage to drive several states away before giving up or failing on her journey. Ford recalls one trip inspired by Georgia O’Keefe to “the Faraway,” a magical land out west that so obviously did not exist that even as a child he questioned the veracity of their destination.

The novel is ripe with cultural commentary digressions and short chats with other trapped travelers shared over hastily smoked cigarettes. They usually serve no narrative purpose, but are sufferable nonetheless so as to lend some reality and legitimacy to a spontaneous 180-page refund request. Miles’ writing is engaging if sparse; the general lack of literary language is especially notable as Ford now works translating Polish fiction, and spends large swaths of the novel sharing translation tips and mulling over altering the original author’s diction.

For Ford, what started as a purely pragmatic correspondence morphed into cathartic journey into himself. “Dear American Airlines” uses a physical layover to promote an emotional layover, and although Ford started out angry at American Airlines, he probably should thank them for what insight he gleamed into his life while writing them, demanding a refund.

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"The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown

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.

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