Dan Brown is back with another thriller so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff.
"Origin" marks the fifth outing for Harvard professor Robert Langdon, the symbologist who uncovered stunning secrets and shocking conspiracies in "The Da Vinci Code" and Brown's other phenomenally best-selling novels. All the worn-out elements of those earlier books are dragged out once again for Brown to hyperventilate over like some grifter trying to fence fake antiques.
This time around, the requisite earth-shattering secret is a discovery made by Edmond Kirsch, a computer genius with a flair for dramatic presentations and infinite delays. Kirsch has called the world's intelligentsia to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where he plans to reveal his findings to the world because that's the way complex scientific discoveries are announced by quirky billionaires. We don't hear anything specific about Kirsch's discovery except that it "boldly contradicted almost every established religious doctrine, and it did so in a distressingly simple and persuasive manner."
As you might imagine, this prospect does not please the distressingly simple-minded leaders of the world's religions, who brace themselves for another Copernican body blow. For 100 pages, Brown talks like the pilot on a grounded airplane, assuring us that we'll take off any minute now. But then, when Kirsch finally quiets the crowd at the Guggenheim and begins to reveal his secret, some Roman Catholic zealot shoots him in the head.
Why couldn't it have been me?
Fortunately, Robert Langdon is in the audience that night, and he's determined to unlock Kirsch's PowerPoint presentation and post his discovery online. But the same shadowy assassin who murdered Kirsch will stop at nothing to keep that from happening. It's a cosmic battle between the conservative forces of Spain still nostalgic for Franco and the enlightened forces of science eager to embrace the future.
And so, for the next 300 pages, Langdon dodges death while racing around tourist hotspots in Spain — Casa Mila! Sagrada Familia! — trying to divine Kirsch's computer password. This whole mess could have been avoided if Kirsch had just used "Password123" like the rest of us, but, no, he had to show off and pick a 47-character line of poetry.
Don't worry: Langdon isn't searching in the dark. He gets help from Kirsch's computerized personal assistant, a disembodied voice that sounds like the love child of Spock and Jeeves. And, anticipating the inevitable movie adaptation, Langdon is joined in his panicked quest by the Guggenheim's beautiful director, who happens to be engaged to the prince of Spain.
Brown may not have discovered a secret that threatens humanity's faith, but he has successfully located every cliche in the world. Some sentences are constructed entirely of hand-me-down phrases, like "Edmond was walking a thin line and covering his bases," which sounds like someone playing baseball en pointe. An unholy trinity of words — shocking, stunning, devastating — are reused like old shopping bags until they're so threadbare they can't hold any meaning at all. And besides those Brownian cycles of false suspense, there are weird stylistic ticks. The characters of "Origin" seem to suffer some kind of jaw dislocation: his jaw dropped, her jaw tightened, his jaw fell. The whole cast needs an oral surgeon.
All right — I get it — this is cotton candy spun into print, but why then must every reference, no matter how pedestrian, be explained in a Wikipedia monotone that Siri would pity? We learn, for instance, that Churchill was a "celebrated British statesman." That the French read from left to right. That Gauguin was "a groundbreaking painter who epitomized the Symbolist movement of the late 1800s and helped pave the way for modern art." That the phrase "phone home" is "a playful allusion to the Spielberg movie about an extraterrestrial named 'ET' who was trying to find his way home." And at the book's most dimwitted point: "According to dictionary.com, a 'regent' is someone appointed to oversee an organization while its leader is incapacitated or absent." Another secret revealed!
All this might be worth enduring if the story's infinitely hyped revelations didn't finally show up at the end of a trail of blood sounding like an old TED Talk. Kirsch's posthumous answers to the big questions — Where did we come from? Where are we going? — will surprise no one technologically savvy enough to operate a cellphone.
Darwinians, fundamentalists, atheists and believers: Pray that this cup pass from you.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Dan Brown
Doubleday. 480 pp. $29.95