I’ll admit straight out that as a devoted iconoclast and passing buff in secret histories, Dan Brown’s 2003 The Da Vinci Code tickled me enormously. (And here I must stress that I speak only of the book. The movie was 150 minutes of suck served on a bed of wilted lettuce.)
In The Da Vinci Code Brown’s hero, Harvard symbologist Robert Langford, hustles through Paris trying to unlock secrets which reveal the surviving lineage of Jesus while dodging various police and folk who fear anything that threatens their faith.
Sure, the theories weren’t original--but Brown also made no secret of his source material.
In this year’s most-anticipated fiction release, The Lost Symbol Robert Langford is at it again.
He finds himself in another city known for its rich history, and suddenly the clock is ticking.
All will be lost if Langford doesn’t decode a hidden message hundreds of years old in the space of a few tense hours which leads to a treasure of great mystery and power hidden there by none other than George Washington himself. (If you’re a careful reader, you won’t have any trouble figuring out where the treasure lies hidden.)
But there are hurdles, of course: a clever villain, a series of puzzles each more cryptic than the last, and the CIA Security Office.
Along the way, the professorial Langford reveals much hidden history regarding the Freemasonry and the founding fathers of the United States.
As for the main antagonist of this novel, instead of an albino religious fanatic as we had in Brown’s previous book, we’re treated with a tattooed mystical fanatic.
Different, but the same in that his character, too, has a yen for purification trough self-mutilation.
In The Lost Symbol, however, the stakes between villain and victim and hero seem to be more personal. At risk is the life of an old friend and mentor of Langford, a high-ranking Mason named Solomon (not the most subtle of naming decisions) who has been kidnapped by the committed villain Mal’akh (after Moloch of Milton fame). While Mal’akh is after the great power the mysterious treasure promises to bestow, there is also a theme of betrayal and revenge at work here.
I have to hand it to Mal’akh for being an interesting villain in that he’s very good at putting the characters (Langford and others) into seemingly no-win situations in which they must dance to his tune or people die. There’s something almost comic-bookish about him that would make him a great candidate for Batman’s rogues gallery. But still, as a villain, I found he wasn’t very trustworthy. While professing a code, his code is almost like he has no code at all. (If you can’t trust the villain, who can you trust?)
The pacing of the novel is a bit frantic. It’s a little like a roller-coaster that’s stuck in a loop. There are ups and downs and just when you think you’re going to get a breather, you go around again. It’s an exhausting sort of read.
If The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons spurred an interest in Renaissance art and Church history, what’s going to get spurred by this novel?
Just look around. The big-box bookstores are already groaning under the weight of books on the Freemasons, symbols, and secret histories. The conspiracy theorists are wetting themselves.
Expect to see a lot of books in this vein over the next year or two.
It’ll be worse than the glut of pirate books following the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In addition to fun stuff like that, expect to find a surge of interest in the field of Noetics which, imperfectly defined, is a kind of melding between science and New Age practices. It’s a fascinating little field and it will be interesting to see if the surge of interest will actually produce something relevant to today’s world. But I won’t hold my breath.
As for the meat of the book--and by that I mean the symbols and clues and puzzles--it’s a pretty good meal. Hidden in artwork in the Library of Congress, the Statehouse, and around the DC area are clues to America’s Freemason past. A lot of what Brown (as Langford) exposes aren’t so much secrets as forgotten details to history. Yes, a goodly number of our founding fathers were Freemasons. A number of high-profile people in Washington, DC today are Freemasons. None of this has ever been secret--but it’s also not really advertised and talked about much. I mean... who cares? Aren’t the Freemasons just another bunch of networking businessmen? Are they any more or less silly than Uncle Joe when he goes to his Knights of Columbus meetings for nickel beer night? I think Brown exaggerates the significance of Freemasonry in this country for the sake of telling a ripping yarn--but he’s done that before. Remember? This is why his books are in the fiction section and not the history section. What is fascinating is the tour of DC we get from the point of view of someone schooled in these so-called “forgotten histories”. As happened in Rome, Paris, and Vatican City--expect to see Lost Symbol tours queuing up. I wonder how much access they’ll get to the Library of Congress, National Cathedral, or the Freemason temples.
What will piss off people? While not as controversial as The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol does point out that America’s founders had no intention of founding the country as a Christian nation--but as a nation of freethinkers with a mission to make America the bastion for reason in the New World. High ideals, and maybe Brown is suggesting we return to our roots in seeking to become a nation of Reason once more than a nation of religious fundamentalists But it’s a relatively minor point in the book compared to the adventure plot--and a point that will be conveniently ignored by those who find the idea of a renewed Age of Reason uncomfortable.
What about the Freemasons?
Are they as mad as the Catholic Church and other Christians were about The Da Vinci Code?
Nah. They don’t seem to be.
For one thing, they understand fact vs. fiction. And second, they’re kind of used to being the subject of conspiracy nuts and other sensationalists.
They even have a webpage: The Lost Symbol and Freemasonry.
So what about you?
Will you enjoy The Lost Symbol?
Tough call. Like the previous book, it’s an easy, quick read with super-short chapters. While Brown hasn’t yet devolved to the sort of “movie script in book form” of style that Michael Crichton did in is later years, there is a “short attention span theater” sense to the pacing. Unfortunately this seems to be a popular practice in a lot of contemporary fiction--especially in the thriller sections of the bookstore. Most readers will be frustrated watching Langford and the other “good guys” continuously fall into the clutches of the evil Mal’akh, and they will want to shake the annoying CIA director. But it’s a fun book. Don’t take it too seriously, and enjoy the romp for what it is. I’d say compared to previous novels, it’s not as strong as The Da Vinci Code or as smart as Angels & Demons, but it’s still in that top three and still a very good read. American readers in particular should enjoy it. And it’s overall theme of the quest of enlightenment is one I can get solidly behind.
So yes, it’s a recommendation--even a high recommendation--but grab a library copy, a cheaper e-book edition, or wait for the paperback. Don’t pay the full hardcover price if you can at all avoid it. If you liked this book, but want something heavier, more challenging, but still enjoyable, replace Freemasons with Templars and check out Focault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.
Oh, and Freemasons... can I still join?