Somebody has probably already pointed out that the publication date of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code March 18, 2003 came just two days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That isn't a conspiracy, it's just a coincidence. But it does as fans of The Da Vinci Code often say make you think.
Consider: Brown's novel proposed an alternate history of Christianity, wherein a bitter schism took place shortly after Jesus' death, between the mean patriarchal faction who concealed Jesus' marriage and the nice faction consisting of startlingly liberal first-wave feminists. In other words, The Da Vinci Code recasts the history of Christianity into something that looks a lot more like the history of ... Islam, wherein an early schism took place between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. Could the book's passionate following in a predominantly Christian America express a secret, even unconscious sympathetic identification with Islam? Or a repressed desire for Christianity to have a less boring, more Islamic history richer, darker, riven at its root by an exciting sectarian war?
Probably not. But this is the name of the game in the Browniverse: at its most basic level the Brownian fantasy is that coincidences aren't just chance, and things are not just things: they mean something. Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, is after all a symbologist (following a branch of human intellectual inquiry that it cannot be stated enough times doesn't exist, at Harvard or anywhere else). Beneath his learned, oddly asexual caress, objects come to life and become symbols. A V isn't just a V, it's a chalice, a symbol of the eternal feminine. Chaos is secretly order. Noise is secretly signal.
Unlike the first two Langdon novels, The Lost Symbol (Doubleday; 509 pages) doesn't deal with the history of the Christian church. The mythology Langdon is decoding is that of the Freemasons (whose motto ordo ab chao, order out of chaos, could be Brown's). Langdon is summoned dude is always getting summoned to Washington, D.C., by a mysterious phone call that he thinks is coming from his old friend and mentor Peter Solomon, head of the Smithsonian. Langdon thinks he's going to give a speech at a Smithsonian fundraiser at the Capitol building. But when he shows up, there's no fundraiser and no speech, just Solomon's severed hand, grotesquely tattooed, stuck on a spike in the Capitol rotunda. Oh, snap.
By this point we've already been given several pleasantly familiar Brownian treats. Langdon has already flashed us his trademark Mickey Mouse watch ("I wear it to remind me to slow down and take life less seriously"), and we've gotten a taste of his freakish memory, his crippling claustrophobia and his rueful skepticism. We've been reminded of Brown's taste for ritual violence there's a touch of Thomas Harris about his writing. We've even been introduced to a lonely, violent fanatic with weird skin. His name is Mal'akh instead of Silas, and instead of being an albino he's covered in tattoos, but same difference.
But here's the thing. It's easy to run Brown down, because his writing isn't very deft. He introduces new characters with a kind of electric breathlessness that borders on the inadvertently hilarious ("Newly hired security guard Alfonso Nuñez carefully studied the male visitor now approaching his checkpoint ..."). And the unfortunate sentence "His massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny" should itself be forcibly tattooed on Brown's massive sex organ. Worse, Brown's scholarship reads like the work of a man who believes what he reads in Wikipedia. In particular, the book suffers from an ill-advised fling with something called noetic science, which explores the idea that human consciousness can affect the physical world, thereby providing (as we are reminded twice in the space of half a page) the "link between modern science and ancient mysticism." (Unlike symbology, noetic science is, amazingly, a real thing.)
And it's a little sickmaking to watch the undergraduates fawn over Langdon as if! And I want to know who provides cell-phone service for Brown's characters, because they can make calls even when they're underground.
But and let's make this a resounding but it would be irresponsible not to point out that the general feel, if not all the specifics, of Brown's cultural history is entirely correct. He loves showing us places where our carefully tended cultural boundaries between Christian and pagan, sacred and secular, ancient and modern are actually extraordinarily messy. Langdon points out, for example, that the U.S. Capitol "was designed as a tribute to one of Rome's most venerated mystical shrines," the Temple of Vesta, and that it prominently features a painting of George Washington in the guise of Zeus. ("That hardly fits with the Christian underpinnings of this country," harrumphs Langdon's skeptical audience.) Power is power, and it flows from religious vessels to political ones with disturbing ease. This may or not be obvious, but it is true, and deeply weird, and not at all trivial.
The plot of The Lost Symbol churns forward with a brutalist energy that makes character but a flesh appendage on its iron machine. It's fun, but you feel a little bruised afterward. Langdon must ransack the Capitol for his missing friend Peter Solomon, the one who lost the hand, and for a hidden Masonic pyramid, which is the key to some mystical wisdom that will turn man into god, which is something that Mal'akh, the tattooed nut job, has a keen interest in. Langdon is joined by the head of the CIA's Office of Security, who for some reason is a tiny, feisty Japanese woman with a huge scar on her neck Brown screwed the dial one notch past quirky there. Langdon is also accompanied by another in Brown's line of "attractive, dark-haired," essentially interchangeable brainy-hottie heroines, who happens to be a noetic (oh, God, I typed it again) scientist.
Along the way Langdon bags all kinds of exotic symbological fauna, decoding his specimens on the fly with an inexhaustible sense of wonderment (No, it can't be! Oh, but it can, Professor Langdon). His inner struggle is between his own native academic skepticism and the ever mounting evidence that the world contains something miraculous that said skepticism can't account for. "You, like many educated people, live trapped between worlds," a wise priest (he's also a Mason!) tells him. "One foot in the spiritual, one foot in the physical. Your heart yearns to believe ... but your intellect refuses to permit it." Langdon should get together with Agent Mulder from The X-Files they'd have a lot to talk about.
But Brown has another agenda in The Lost Symbol, which is to rehabilitate Washington, D.C., as one of the great world capitals of gothic mystery, one that can hold its own with Paris or London or Rome. "America has a hidden past," Langdon thinks, italically. "Every time Langdon lectured on the symbology of America, his students were confounded to hear that the true intentions of our nation's forefathers had absolutely nothing to do with what so many politicians now claimed. America's intended destiny has been lost to history."
He's set himself a huge challenge. What he did for Christianity in Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, Brown is now trying to do for America: reclaim its richness, its darkness, its weirdness. It's probably a quixotic effort, but it is nevertheless touchingly valiant. We're not just overweight tourists in T-shirts and fanny packs, he says. Our history is as sick and weird as anybody's! There's signal in the noise, order in the chaos! It just takes a degree from a nonexistent Harvard department to see it.