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.


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Jagmohan Parmar said...

I think that basic idea behind Dan Brown's writings is to create awareness about the facts that he high lights through his mysterious cases. I believe it's a brilliant way of educating the masses. From Holy Grail to Hand of mysteries Brown has done a beautiful work!!

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