Saturday, February 26, 2011

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This is an enormous book.  This is a wonderful book.  This is a book that I found engaging and thought provoking, without actually loving it, but I couldn't put it down.  Like the characters, this book is prickly to live with, but worth the effort.  Franzen does not need my endorsement, as he's doing just fine, but he has it nonetheless.

I read The Corrections back when there was all that fuss about it, and I actually loved it.  Sure, there were problems, and "talking turds" were given a strenuous critical lashing, but to me it said so much about the joys and disasters of family that I heartily embraced it.  Sadly, I must have read it before starting this blog, because when I went back to read my review, there wasn't one.

So any nuanced discussion of the relationship between The Corrections and Freedom will have to wait until I re-read the earlier book.  (Now I'm wondering--did I borrow it from the library, or is it living in one of my bookshelves?)

Anyway, back to Freedom.  It is fundamentally the story of Walter and Patty Berglund and their marriage.  When they met, Patty was a women's basketball star at the University of Minnesota and Walter an earnest student at Macalester College. We get some background into how they arrived in the same place--Patty's family were well-off in New York, but she never fit in and basically fled to the Midwest to escape the rest of them.  Walter's family ran a sketchy motel in Hibbing, and he moved to the city to escape his alcoholic father.. They were brought together through Walter's roommate, Richard Katz, a devastating bad-boy musician and Walter's opposite in nearly every way.  Patty is attracted to Richard, Walter is in love with Patty, and Richard does the most un-selfish thing he ever does in his entire life by driving Patty away from himself and into Walter's life.  After graduation and their marriage, Patty becomes Donna Reed from It's a Wonderful Life, renovating a run-down Victorian house in Saint Paul and being a full time mother to their two children, Jessica and Joey.

Walter graduates from law school and works first for 3M (total Minnesota shout-outs in this portion of the book), and then for the Nature Conservancy.  Franzen mostly skims their lives from the time Patty gives up Richard until nearly 20 years later, when Joey Berglund causes parental grief.  Walter and Patty are "stereotypical" liberal Minnesotans, signified deftly by their driving Volvos and listening to NPR.  Joey hits puberty and locks himself into battle with his father, becoming Franzen's version of Alex P. Keaton.

(In fact, there is a kind of echo of Family Ties in this book--you can see Patty as Meredith Baxter Birney--warm and likeable, a good mother generally but occasionally out of her depth, while Michael Gross plays Walter as kind of a feckless pussy of a man.  Jessica has less personality than either Justine Bateman or Tina Yothers, so that part of the analogy fails.  But you can pick either one of them as a visual reference for Jessica as we proceed through the review.)

Joey wants money.  There is no reason we ever learn for his insatiable desire for riches, but it is possibly tied up in his battle with his father.  Walter doesn't particularly care about money, and Joey is able to absolutely push Walter to fury on the topic.  By the time he's 16, Joey has moved out of the family home and moved in next door with his girlfriend Connie and her feckless family.  In time, Joey graduates from high school and goes to the University of Virginia, where he struggles to establish himself.  He can't quite bring himself to commit to Connie, but he can't give her up either.  He falls into the thrall of his roommate's family--a neocon political think tank father and the beautiful sister, but never quite commits himself there either.  He dabbles in war speculation, ultimately serving as a sub-subcontractor to deliver shoddy parts for shoddy trucks shipped to the military for use in Iraq.  He can't quite bring himself to take the profits or to turn whistle-blower--a common theme for his life.  He marries Connie on a whim, then can't bring himself to tell his family, nor can he entirely give up his pursuit of the beautiful sister.

Walter, however, is the engine of the book.  Through his work with the Nature Conservancy, he makes the acquaintance of Vin Haven, a Texas billionaire who hires Walter to create a sanctuary for the cerulean warbler, a tiny blue bird that migrates between South America and West Virginia.  Haven's controversial plan is to buy a hundred square miles of West Virginia land, mine out all the coal in the fastest (and most ecologically perilous) manner possible, then reclaim the land for the cerulean warblers.

The plan is rather bold and also counter-intuitive, and Walter is a bit too naive to see the (inevitable) damage it will do to his principles to participate.  He can see the brilliance of the plan--if you remove the coal before converting the land to sanctuary, there will never be any pressure to destroy the sanctuary for the underlying mineral resources.  However, it requires that he trust coal companies and oil men--historically not the greatest of conservators.  In pursuit of this goal, Walter and Patty move to Georgetown, and live in the townhouse that is the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust.  Walter's assistant also lives in the townhouse, and she is a beautiful 26 year old who is visibly in love with Walter.  The marriage is in trouble.

Of course, it has been in trouble before--Patty's unresolved lust for Richard resulted in a weekend fling and then the joint decision that they both loved Walter too much to cheat on him with each other.  Walter was mercifully unaware of this for years.  However, Patty had little to do in Washington, and became increasingly depressed and hard to live with, while Lalitha's beauty and obvious devotion to Walter was increasingly difficult for him to resist.  Things come to a head one weekend when Richard arrives in DC at Walter's request to help him start "Free Space" a movement to arrest overpopulation.

Free Space is Walter's gift to himself as he feels increasingly dirtied by the deals he's making to achieve the cerulean warbler sanctuary.  As Walter sees it, the root of all environmental difficulty lies in the fact of too many humans on the planet, and he wants to do something to reverse the steady growth of human population.  The idea is to appeal to youth through a series of rock concerts and music on the topic, and Richard is their key to musical credibility.  Richard agrees to help, mostly because he senses the Berglund's marital troubles are a chance for him to get back together with Patty.  Patty tries to fend Richard off with her therapy manuscript,(which compromises a large section of the book), ostensibly because it shows how much she loves Walter.  Richard reads it, leaves DC after putting the manuscript on Walter's desk.

Of course, Walter reads it and is infuriated by Patty's betrayal with Richard, even though it was years before.  He throws Patty out of the house and lets himself fall in love with Lalitha.  They travel together for several months, running the Free Space battles of the the bands, set to culminate near the cerulean warbler habitat in West Virginia.  Walter and Lalitha have the closest thing to a fight, and she goes back to W.Va ahead of him, and is killed in an auto accident.

All of this is well written, closely observed, carefully researched, and mere set up for the novel's last 30 pages.  Six years have passed, and Patty is working as a teacher's aide in New York, while Walter is back in Minnesota, working a low level job back at the Nature Conservancy.  He is living in the old lake cabin that used to belong to his mother, the same cabin where Patty and Richard had their tryst, which Richard made into a successful album he called Nameless Lake.  Development has reached the lake, and Walter goes door to door asking the residents of the McMansions to please keep their cats indoors--he cites statistics that nationally, cats kill over 1 million birds per day.  There is a conflict set up with the mostly unlikeable Linda Haufbonner (?), who refuses to curb her cat and takes personal offense at Walter.  Over the course of a couple of years, things escalate.  Then Patty shows up at the cabin.

Walter has refused to talk to Patty, or even about Patty to his children.  They are not divorced, because Walter doesn't want to do anything that will bring the living, vibrant Patty back into his life, and destroy the remaining fragments of memory he has of Lalitha.  He has essentially frozen himself, working to keep enough life to get out of bed in the morning and to sleep at night.  Patty shows up at his door, underdressed for the autumn weather, and sits on his doorstep refusing to move and eventually subjecting herself to hypothermia.  Walter literally can't stand to watch her kill herself, so he brings her inside and warms her back to life.  She returns the favor, spending about a year repairing relations with the neighbors in the development--especially the noxious Linda Haufbonner.  The neighbors are sorry when Patty lets them know the two will be moving back to NYC at the end of the summer.  In a lovely touch, the cabin and its woods are left to a land trust and turned into a bird sanctuary.

For a precis, that was quite long.  And as interesting as the plot developments are, the book is most engaging in the connections and motifs and themes, of which there are so many that this review is going to get quite unwieldy.

How Do We Live?

The main issue of the book is the question of "how do we live?"  Franzen explicitly raises the question in the introductory portion of the book, before we know very much about the Berglunds and their lives.  Walter has been hardworking and mostly absent from the neighborhood life, while Patty has been tirelessly generous and social.  However, when Joey moved into Connie's house, Patty went a little crazy and began a vendetta against that family, trying to enlist neighborhood support.  One of the neighbors isn't too sorry to see them go to DC, and says that the problem is that Patty "never learned how to live."

The theme repeats in multiple ways.  Most obviously is Walter's obsession with (and disapproval of) the way American culture gobbles up resources.  Coal mining, gas drilling, SUVs, giant TVs, huge houses on enormous lawns, strip malls--all are targets of his anger.  Patty's loss of identity in DC is another version--she doesn't work, she no longer has kids to raise, she's depressed and disappointed, yet not able to change things until they go completely wrong that one weekend.  The question gets re-addressed with Patty's mother and siblings once her father dies.  There is "an estate" that is the focus of much familial disfunction, and Patty ends up helping her mother sell it off and use the money to improve the lives of her siblings.  First, sister Abigail, a performance artist who uses the inheritance to extract herself from a squalid bohemian existence in NYC, forming a troupe of female comics who become quite successful in Italy.  There is the other sister Veronica, who wants only to practice yoga and paint, to live a solitary life in which she doesn't have to work.  There is a brother, Edgar, who lost a fortune in Asian stocks, and ended up living on "the estate," subsistence farming the grounds with his Russian Jewish wife and five children.  There were uncles to be bought off, and each of Patty's siblings had a different idea of how the money should be allocated.

Joey also has to weigh various options of how to live.  He wants to see himself as a "hard man," but isn't certain he has the stomach for it.  He wants his roommate's beautiful sister Jenna, but doesn't believe he has the ability to earn the kind of money she expects from a husband.  He wants to escape his father, but ultimately finds Walter to be the only one he can confess to.  He is drawn to wealth, but doesn't have the coldness he sees as necessary to become wealthy.  The telling incident of Joey is the lost wedding ring.  He has married his long time girlfriend Connie on a whim in New York, but can't bring himself to publicly acknowledge his action.  He plays with his wedding band in his mouth, sucking on it and knocking it against his teeth, while talking on the phone and abjuring Connie not to tell her own mother, lest the information get back to his parents.  He is also "explaining" to her why he is stopping in Buenos Aires rather than going directly to see the salvaged truck parts he is supposed to be buying in Paraguay--while leaving out the important detail that he is travelling with Jenna.  After hanging up, he accidentally swallows the ring.

Part of him thinks he should just buy a replacement ring--it would be $300 and Connie would never know the difference.  Yet the ring holds real emotional value to him, and he ends up paying $297 for an ER visit only to learn there is nothing to be done other than waiting for it to pass and retrieving it.  Of course, the moment arrives while he's in a Patagonia hotel room with Jenna, finding that he has to physically handle his own feces in order to retrieve the ring--and the incident ends his infatuation with the unattainable Jenna.

I Hate Cats

I am embarrassed that I didn't catch this one earlier--the deliberate homophonic "cats" and "Katz."  Throughout the book, Richard lives a rock and roll lifestyle, that involves sleeping with lots of different (young) women.  In fact, he more or less preys on them, albeit often with their permission.  He spends most of the book sniffing around Walter's house trying to catch Patty as well.  This pattern is clearly parallel to the situation with Linda Haufbonner's obnoxious cat "Bobby," a near feral sociopathic animal who kills birds on Walter's property and leaves their broken bodies behind.  Bobby rarely eats his victims (not "animal" behavior, but more like "human" sport hunting) and doesn't take them home to his "family."  Ultimately, Walter live traps Bobby and takes him to a rescue organization in the Cities, there to either be euthenized or adopted by a family that will keep him indoors.  Similarly, Richard is metaphorically caged and removed from Walter's life.


Lalitha's fate is a human-sized version of the plight of the migratory birds Walter tries to save.  Franzen writes about how fragile and tiny birds are, and how they are mowed down by wind turbines and airplanes and sport hunters, how when they reach their summer grounds the habitat is often logged or developed or paved over.  Lalitha's dies while driving a small (fragile) car, hit or run off the road by the heavy coal mining equipment that dominates the unsafe West Virginia roads.  Later, Walter muses on how his memory of Lalitha is breaking up, a feeling that is echoed in his thoughts on the fragility of birds--bits of fluff and bone, nearly weightless once their tiny hearts stop beating.

Only Connect

The message of E.M. Forester's great book Howard's End is the importance of human connection, and Franzen illustrates this in the last section of his book.  Walter is deliberately emotionally frozen, trying to keep time from progressing and erasing his memories of Lalitha.  He is cold and distant to his neighbors, his children, and himself.  When Patty shows up on his doorstep, she deliberately refuses Walter's orders to "go warm up!" until she is nearly dead of hypothermia.  Walter carries her inside the cabin, covers her in blankets, and strips himself first and then her, in order to share the body heat to keep her alive.  There is a lovely poetic description of when she comes to and stares at him, and he sees how fragile their lives are in the face of the great chasm of death--and he begins to thaw as well.  Patty brings her warmth and life to the neighbors in the development, warming their impressions of Walter.

I'm sure I could go on, and as I read other reviews and analyses of this book, I will post an update.  Is Freedom the Great American Novel?  Probably not, but it is definitely worth reading.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

On The Future Development Of Mixed Media Novels

I ran across this today--an Amazon recommended book for February, called Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  It's a YA novel, and I loved her earlier book, Before I Fall.  So, a good recommendation, and one I will take seriously, but NOT the reason I am writing this.

No, the real reason I am writing this is because on the Amazon page for Delirium, Lauren Oliver provides a playlist--what amounts to a soundtrack to the book.  And this makes me think, again, about the future of the novel and of long form storytelling.  Because this playlist might have been the music that Lauren Oliver listened to while she wrote the book, but why shouldn't books have a soundtrack just like movies and TV do?

Sure, this particular iteration is awkward and rather unlikely--you don't find this playlist unless you look at the book on Amazon.  If you just picked it up in the bookstore, or borrowed it from the library, it doesn't seem like there is a link to the playlist.  Nor is the "playlist" actually playable on Amazon.  You can click the links to hear a sample of the music, and purchase it through Amazon's mp3 store, this increasing Amazon's profit margin.  So, yeah--kind of cynical, but also sort of brilliant.

I have a recollection that a million years ago (in cultural terms, otherwise known as 1998) Laura Esquivel wrote released Law of Love, her much less successful follow-up to her blockbuster Like Water for Chocolate.  Amazon confirms my memory that the book came with a CD of music that you were supposed to play while reading the book--Puccini arias and Mexican dances.  I never bought this book, and my recollection is that the CD portion was not particularly well reviewed.  Of course, neither was the book, which may have been a large part of the problem.

But why not push it further, now that the world is embracing Kindles and other e-readers?  (Yes, I do have a Nook, although I prefer to read on my iPod or my Droid phone.)  All these devices have sound capability, so why not have music programmed to the pages.  Surely, there is some ability to link the two.  I really think there is a future in truly multi-platform reading, and that these are the first clumsy steps toward that future.

There are opportunities for cross-promotion.  A playlist like this could be assembled into a one-click purchase on iTunes or Napster easily.  Amazon could (I assume, not being a coder of any description) also assemble the various songs into an one-click "album" and even allow you to purchase it at a discount along with the book.  This ought to be especially easy to do in ebook format, shouldn't it?

Hallmark is currently promoting the hell out of recordable storybooks right now, the latest version of books on tape, which appears to have embedded the audio in the book itself.  Surely I am not the only one who sees how books are beginning to look like blogs and internet pages.

Look, ebook readers have preserved the image of books--they still have "page turn" functions.  There is no real reason for this, technologically, but it does speak to a way we have acculturated to the form of a book.  Why not approach reading from the other direction as well--make books more like web pages, with music, embedded video, clickable links?  Paper books will always exist, but ebooks have the potential to be so much more than mere digitized books.  Somebody get on this now!

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

What is there to say about this book other than it is exactly what you would expect from a Dan Brown Novel(TM).  There are the ridiculously short chapters.  The excessive use of italics for emphasis--when you can't make the point by repeating it, do it again in italics in its own paragraph.  There is the physical freak with an inexplicable obsession--this one is a 'roid-fueled bald guy with a full body Nair addiction, who has tattooed every inch of his body, except for the very top of his head.  There is the bad guy who turns out not to be so bad.  There are the lectures about the "real meaning" of architecture, secret societies, language. There is the ominous secret society, this time the Freemasons.  There are the fake etymologies--Amen at the end of a prayer is supposed to derive from the name of the Egyptian god Amun--everything is connected to everything else!  There is the beautiful woman companion with absolutely no sexual attraction whatsoever.  There is the enormous body count, caused by a sociopathic serial murderer who for some reason never quite gets around to killing the main characters, although the secondary and lower characters have about a 10% survival rate.

It's The Da Vinci Code set in Washington D.C.  Robert Langdon, everybody's favorite symbologist (isn't the field actually called "hermeneutics?") is called to DC to serve as a last minute substitute speaker at some event being held in the Capitol building.  He gets there, late and disheveled, only to find that there is no event!  Statuary Hall is empty!  But there is a kerfuffle in the Rotunda--a human hand on a spike, pointing upward.  Because being creepy is the only way to get Langdon's attention, apparently.

And the race is on.  For some reason, everything "has" to happen on this particular night.  There are several threats about "running out of time" although there is absolutely no reason everything has to happen in this particular 10 hour period of time.  I mean, all the puzzles and solutions and everything are frickin' carved in granite--it's not like they are going anywhere.

So, back to the hand.  Langdon recognizes is as belonging to the guy he was supposed to be meeting at the imaginary event--the ID is the 33rd Degree Masonic ring.  But unlike when it was actually attached to Peter Solomon, now it has tattoos on the fingers, which makes it the "Hand Of Mysteries."

Photo from here--an interesting site collecting references from the book
At this point, Langdon is frantic to find his friend, the Capitol security guards are confused, and suddenly in rushes a terrifying Japanese (really?  or Japanese-American? ) woman who is a Director of the CIA.  She immediately starts throwing her weight around, threatening job security and offering to arrest anybody who fails to co-operate.

Now, I'm no expert--and I didn't just write a 400 page novel with the CIA at the center of it--but my understanding of things is that the CIA doesn't have civil authority inside US borders.  That's the FBI.  The CIA can't arrest anybody, doesn't have any direct authority over the Capitol police, and basically wouldn't have any official reason to be involved in this matter whatsoever.  Maybe the Capitol security and DC cops and FBI might have some interest, but the CIA should really be looking at this as intramural and of no interests whatsoever.  In fact, the CIA's interest turns out to be that the Big Baddie has taken video of secret Masonic rites, and the video includes recognizable US Senators and other DC big wigs, wielding knives, drinking what looks like blood out of skulls, and making truly obnoxious threats along the lines of "your viscera will be ripped from your abdomen if you reveal the secrets of this room."  Understandably, these things could be considered inflammatory if posted on YouTube.

Again, however, it is not the CIA's job to protect the reputations of American citizens caught doing stupid looking things.  If it's anybody's job, it would be the Fibbies--FBI.  But it turns out that the FBI doesn't have a giant puzzle sculpture on its grounds, so it's the CIA that swoops in.

Photo from here--nice summary of the sculpture too.
(This was supposed to be a major part of the this book--clues pointing to Kryptos were planted on the dust jacket of The Da Vinci Code, but it's basically just a random detail.)

The severed hand is supposed to be an invitation to hidden knowledge, and there is another clue tattooed into the palm of the hand--"IIIX 588."   Which makes no sense at all, and like the equally idiotic scene in DVC where Langdon doesn't recognize that Leonardo wrote in mirror script, here he doesn't realize for an impossibly long time that he's reading this one upside down.  It's actually "SBB XIII"--which it also takes forever for anyone to understand or explain, whereas if you had ridden in an elevator before, you would recognize as referring to a sub-basement.

So the CIA woman is threatening everyone in a ridiculous manner, the Architect of the Capitol (a actual job title) comes running in to keep Masonic secrets safe, there is some nonsense about Langdon carrying a package that has been X-rayed.  He has no idea what is in it, but the CIA woman has seen the security scan and they holler at each other about it and eventually open it--and its the capstone of a pyramid and it fits the little stone pyramid that was down in the SBB.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Virginia, Peter Solomon's sister Kathleen is doing secret "scientific" research in a secret laboratory that for some reason is inside a perfectly unilluminated warehouse for the Smithsonian.  Somehow, when you enter the warehouse you don't see the lab, which is of course illuminated.  No, you have to have the disorienting experience of walking through the complete darkness, guided by a carpet runner.  Anyway, in this mysterious lab, Kathleen Solomon is conducting experiments in "noetic science" which Brown is himself so uninterested in and skeptical of that he doesn't even bother explaining what they are.  Take it on faith that these experiements "prove" things like the soul has mass, and thoughts have gravitational pull, and that God exists and there is life after death and that prayer chains cure cancer--all of which she has "proved" sitting alone in a dark room all by herself, with one assistant who is a computer hacker.

I don't believe a word of it, you don't believe a word of it, and based on the evidence presented, Dan Brown doesn't believe a word of it, and he's the one writing it.

So the tattooed freak covers himself in make-up to hide the tattoos--does he use a liquid foundation, or is he into the newer mineral brands?  Does he buy it from Sephora?  He represents himself as "Dr. Christopher Abaddon"--which is a total giveaway there, as he might as well have said "Call me Dr. Satan." Or, even better, "Doctor Horrible."

He gains access to the warehouse, kills the assistant and blows up the lab, but Kathleen escapes after a chase scene through the perfect darkness.   Which is silly--because when the inevitable Hollywood movie adaptation comes along starring Tom Hanks with heinous head-fur, how do you film a chase scene in total blackness? Anyway, Kathleen escapes and manages to hook up with Langdon, and they spend the rest of the book running away from the CIA and black helicopters while solving puzzles and magic squares.

Sure, there are lots of subplots and red herrings (Aringarosa anybody?) but the story boils down to this. . .


The tattooed freak is the Main Bad Guy, with a particular hatred for the Solomon family.  This is because he is a member of the Solomon family--the bad tempered, spoiled brat son of Peter Solomon who got too much money at 18, spent as much of it as he could getting wasted, and got thrown in a Turkish prison for smuggling drugs.  When Peter declined to pay a massive bribe to release him from the prison, he paid the bribe himself, faked his own death (yes, another prisoner was bludgeoned to death to provide the required corpse--he then killed the prison official who arranged it all) and started body building and abusing steroids.  At some point, he decided that sex, drugs and travel were no longer enough, and he started "studying" arcana.

Now, one constant in Dan Brown's books is his compulsion to explain things.  He writes scenes that take place in college lecture halls, he has Langdon discourse pedantically whenever possible, and the secondary characters also usually have pet theories that they love to lay out in excruciatingly pompous detail.  So the fact that the tattoo freak (who calls himself Ma'lakh) doesn't explain what he is looking for simply means that Brown never bothered making any sense of this character or his quest.

So Ma'lakh studies "ancient wisdom" and comes to the conclusion that he can transform himself into a literal demon if he just gets the "lost word" that unlocks the secrets of the Masons.  How he arrives at this plan is not explained.  Why he wants to be a demon, rather than the Most Powerful Person On The Planet is not explained.  Why he thinks that tattooing himself, eliminating all his body hair and castrating himself (with an at-home kit?) is not explained.  Why he thinks the Masons have the final key--and not any other secret society or religion--is not explained.  Why he thinks Masons have anything at all to do with demonology is not explained.  Dan Brown apparently had some trouble with writer's block and looming deadlines, and just didn't bother.

Anyway, Ma'lakh plans to write the Secret Masonic Word onto the top of his head and then make his dad mad enough to kill him with Abraham's knife, and then he will become the king of the demons.  No, it doesn't make any sense.  Not even by Dan Brown standards.

(I wonder what would have happened if he'd written the word "FUN" on his head rather than "circumpunct," which is what Peter told him was the word.  More like "circum-PUNK'D," if you know what I mean.)

But he doesn't reveal himself as Peter's son (although I had guessed it hundreds of pages earlier--and I bet you did too) until after he does a ton of squicky things, including running his thick fingers inside Kathleen's mouth and then rubbing her saliva into the small bare spot on top of his head.  She's his aunt!  Ewwwww!  (BTW, that makes no sense either--it's just a gratuitous creepy thing he does.)

In the end, Ma'lakh arranges things so he's in the top of the DC Masonic lodge, lying on the table under the skylight (or "occulus" in Brown-speak) with his father holding Abraham's knife.  But dad shatters the knife on the stone table rather than kill his own (horrible nasty mad) son.  It's the CIA black helicopter that breaks the glass in the skylight, and the shattered glass is what kills him.  There is a queer sort of otherworldly scene where Ma'lakh dies and finds out that he's not greeted as king of the demons and that chaos isn't as much like a five-star hotel as he apparently imagined it would be.  Again--not something Brown really believes in, based on the cursory treatment he give it.

But wait!  There's more!  Even though Langdon isn't a Mason, he's "earned" the knowledge, so Peter Solomon is going to show him the "lost word" that Ma'lakh was looking for!  The secret knowledge of the Masons, that would completely change human history and unlock humanity's god-like powers if people knew and used it!  And it is hidden, at the bottom of a spiral staircase, hundreds of feet below a pyramid, located in Washington DC!

Yeah, Brown tries to obscure this by having everybody talk about things being hundreds of feet underground--kind of unlikely in a city built on a swamp, so not a very effective misdirection.  Of course, he was talking about the Washington Monument, which is capped by a 12 inch pyramid made of aluminum, which was more expensive than gold at the time.  There is a staircase that winds up to the top, although everybody now takes the elevator.  And at the bottom of the staircase, in the cornerstone of the monument, is a copy of the Mason's edition of the Bible.  !  That's the big reveal.  All the talk about "words of power" and "apotheosis" and "the world is not ready for this knowledge" is actually a mish-mash of humanist thought and conventional religious belief.  God made man in God's image, humanity would be better if it lived by the pattern set by Christ, human knowledge and advancement would look like divinity to George Washington, and the Masons are actually a harmless bunch of dudes who drink red wine out of human skulls and conduct Bible study.  Oh, and there's a secret third back-up of Kathleen's noetic science research that escaped being blown up earlier, but that's not as important as The Bible as the source of True Wisdom.

So, you get to the end of this book, and feel kind of--dirty.  So much of the book is this fetishistic creepiness--the tattoos, the body obsession/horror, the way corpses just pile up without the book slowing down at all, the creepy New Age/demonology mash-ups--it's a book chock full of dirty secrets and slimy creepy things, and I end up wanting to take a shower to get the unsavory scenes off of my skin.

Like I said--exactly what you expect from a Dan Brown novel.