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The 'Symbol' of an Unstoppable Force

By Louis Bayard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

THE LOST SYMBOL

By Dan Brown

Doubleday. 509 pp. $29.95

Welcome to the least relevant review you will read all year.

Dan Brown's latest novel washes into bookstores Tuesday on a wave of 5 million copies. Advance orders alone have made it the No. 1 title on Amazon for two weeks, and if it matches the sales record of "The Da Vinci Code," it will sell 80 million copies around the world. In the months to come, it will be squatting like a sumo wrestler atop every bestseller list, flying out the doors of every Costco and Wal-Mart, rising in Babel-like towers from the floor of every Borders and Barnes & Noble. You haven't pre-ordered? You have better things to do? No matter: It will follow you. Blocking your path at every turn, menacing you with its cover (a Masonic wax seal floating like an angry red sun over the U.S. Capitol). In its bearing, in its provenance, in the hell of a long time it took getting here, this book conveys one message: Submit.

Or at least that's how it would be decoded by Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist who once again gets himself into a serious real-time mess. Arriving in Washington on a January afternoon, he is rudely awakened twice over. First, the speaking engagement used to lure him here turns out to be a hoax. Second, the friend and mentor who supposedly invited him has been kidnapped. More urgently, the friend's hand has been severed and left as a clue on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda.

Langdon has only a few hours to discover something that might not even exist: a Masonic pyramid that harbors the Ancient Mysteries, "a body of secret knowledge that was amassed long ago" and that "enables its practitioners to access powerful abilities that lie dormant in the human mind." In quest of this mystic lore, Langdon confronts the usual battalion of public servants trying to stop him, but at his side stands the usual doughty female -- older than usual -- who, as a specialist in "Noetic Science," even gets a chance to lecture him.

Otherwise, the "Da Vinci" template remains largely intact. Where, in the previous book, the savagery was committed by a massive albino monk, here it is committed by a massive tattooed monk. With the help of bronzer and a blond wig, he is able to talk himself past every security phalanx the federal government can throw at him while also threatening to bring about "a cataclysm from which this country might not recover."

But will Washington recover? "The Lost Symbol" promises to do for us what Dan Brown has already done for Paris, London and Rome: turn our city into a minefield of occultism. Among the stations on Langdon's Masonic pilgrimage are the Library of Congress, the Botanic Garden, Washington National Cathedral, CIA headquarters and the little-known Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, site of a dandy cat-and-mouse encounter between heroine and villain. Best of all, there's not a single White House aide in sight.

Writers envious of Brown's sales (who wouldn't be?) have devoted much ink to his deficiencies as a stylist. These are still in place. ("He could feel his entire world teetering precariously on the brink of disaster. . . . It hit him like a bolt from above. . . . In a flash he understood.") So is Brown's habit of turning characters into docents. But so, too, is his knack for packing huge amounts of information (spurious or no) into an ever-accelerating narrative. Call it Brownian motion: a comet-tail ride of short paragraphs, short chapters, beautifully spaced reveals and, in the case of "The Lost Symbol," a socko unveiling of the killer's true identity.

In the book's concluding sequences, the pace slackens to allow for ruminations on, oh, Elohim and Isaac Newton and creator vs. creation and the true nature of apotheosis and atonement and e pluribus unum. . . . And here an uneasy question arises: Does Dan Brown want to be a novelist of ideas? A novelist of these ideas?

We are required first of all to believe in the universal, if metaphorical, truthfulness of religious texts everywhere. (If Joseph Campbell had followed his bliss into thriller writing, the results might have been the same.) We are also required to believe that our intellectual forebears were so fearful of our stupidity that they went about cloaking their insights in ways too elaborate and byzantine to be grasped by mortals . . . until a really smart mortal could come along and decode the puzzle and then decide, yep, we aren't smart enough.

But who are the dumb ones here? Those Priory of Sion folks from "The Da Vinci Code" could easily have saved their lives by calling a news conference and foisting their hidden treasures on the world. I can only hope that they perished for the sake of giving us a good time, understanding -- as Brown does, in his less grandiose moments -- that the act of decryption delivers more pleasure than the decrypted message. The numerical arrangement in a Sudoku, after all, is meaningless in itself, and the "Symbol" of Dan Brown's title matters much less than the fact that it's lost and that we can lose ourselves finding it. Let those killer monks seek their godlike powers. Me, I'd settle for a few hours' entertainment, even if it doesn't improve me one jot. Give me Brownian motion over Brownian logic.

Bayard's most recent novel is "The Black Tower."

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