I have been giving this some thought, and I would like to introduce all of you to an aesthetic principle I think I have discovered. Certainly, the name I have chosen to give it is my own: I like to think of it as ‘Literary Rubbernecking‘.
There are a number of excellent authors writing at the minute. China Mieville (I know I keep banging on about him, but he’s the best current writer I can think of) leads the field, but Terry Pratchett and Robert Harris both have new books coming out in November, to which I am eagerly looking forward; Neal Stephenson is working away at something (I know not what, but I’m already enthusing); the concluding part of Peter F. Hamilton’s Void trilogy comes out sometime next year; Douglas Adams’s hard-to-find ‘Last Chance to See’ is being reprinted next month to cash in on Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine’s BBC series based on it…
And yet beside one name, one monstrous carbuncle on the literary landscape, these luminati pale into insignificance. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Dan Brown has seen fit to loose upon an unsuspecting populace the full horror of ‘The Lost Symbol’.
I am an intrepid sort, holding my own safety of no account when it comes to reporting the truth, and it was on the basis of this that I bought the book yesterday afternoon and read it in its not-inconsiderable entirity last night.
Which brings me back to literary rubbernecking. Rubbernecking, as you will know, is the term applied to the activity of slowing down when one passes a car crash or other disaster in order to afford oneself as good a view as possible. It’s an unpleasant thing. It speaks to the very basest aspects of our natures. It is curiosity at its meanest, most perverse, and least edifying. There is literally no defence whatsoever that can be mounted for it.
Reading ‘The Lost Symbol’ is like doing that to a book.
Let me be entirely and perfectly clear. This book is a trainwreck of unimaginable proportions. Stephen Fry referred to the preceeding volume, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, as ‘botty-dribble’: one dreads to think of the cloacal reference points one would need in order to adequately sum up this appalling piece of drivel. “Excremental, my dear Watson,” doesn’t even come close.
As someone who reads and evaluates literature on its merits, whatever they might be, this book reaches in and kills me where I live. There are sudden lapses into italicisation to indicate characters’ internal monologues (in itself an odd concept in a novel where the very pages of the book are thicker than the characters’ motivations); too often, the question “What?” is followed not merely by a question mark but an exclamation mark as well; lectures are crow-barred into the narrative in a manner reminiscent of trying to shoehorn a hippo into a tutu (invariably, these lectures are given to Ivy League students who literally gasp or utter cries of astonishment at every not-exactly-earth-shattering revelation in the field of semiotics. This makes me think that either one of two things must be true. Either Ivy League students are ridiculously ill-informed about the world and its history, and are susceptible to mild mass hysteria in a classroom environment; or Dan Brown is actually a frustrated academic with a rich internal fantasy life). There are other, little niggling factual errors that worry away at one’s best efforts to suspend one’s disbelief with the imaginative equivalent of a cat’s cradle of eight-inch mooring lines. The baddie, a black magician called Mal’akh, explains that his name is that of the demon Moloch, whereas anyone who knows any Hebrew will tell you that Malak is the word for a messenger or ‘angel’; the UH-60 helicopter that has a pivotal role to play at the end of the novel, when one of its skids collides with something, doesn’t actually have skids but instead is wheeled; when Mal’akh fools one of the characters by giving his name as ‘Dr. Christopher Abaddon’, Prof. Langdon immediately knows something is wrong but doesn’t explain how he knows (the answer, if you’re wondering, is that ‘Abaddon’ is the name given to one of the two destroying angels in the book of Revelation, the other being ‘Apollyon’)…the list goes on and on. And on. And on. And on. And on.
Anyway, here is the plot, such as it is: Professor Robert Langdon, international celebrity after the events of ‘Angels & Demons’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and lecturer in Symbology at Harvard (to a lot of excitable, incredulous and basically thick students who apparently don’t know the meaning of the word ‘semiotics’), is summoned to Washington by his friend and mentor, Peter Solomon. Solomon, we are told many many times, is humble. We don’t ever see him being humble, but Brown makes the point so often we can’t fail to take it on board. Even Solomon’s eyes are humble. All that humility is to no avail, however, as he has been kidnapped and had his right hand amputated. It is left in the middle of the Capitol building. Langdon must try to find the rest of his friend, all the while trying to determine Mal’akh’s ultimate goal, decoding the secret of the Masons that lies at the heart of Washington (and let me tell you, when you finally find out what it was, it is a shock. Because you were expecting something scandalous, something interesting, something hardcore, and it is none of these things. It’s such an anticlimax that I thought the unusually large number of blank pages left at the back of the hardcover must have been put there by Brown for readers to write their own, better endings. It would not be difficult) and prevent a national security crisis with the CIA hounding him and Dr Katherine Solomon fulfilling the now-obligatory role of scientific crumpet.
This book is (fractionally) better-written than ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but it entirely lacks the frantic pacing of the other two Langdon novels that made them fun or even tolerable. As a result it is much too insipid a follow up. The themes of the novel are essentially the same as his others – religion is bad but the idea of God is good, so start looking, this time inside yourself – while the characters are the same ludicrous mix of grotesqueries we have come to expect from someone who seems to believe the normal world to be nothing more than a thin veneer laid over something much more akin to a perpetual Halloween.
So, I’ve read it. I finished it, gratefully, at 3 in the morning. I will not be picking it up again in the near future. You shouldn’t either. You have no need. Peering between the covers is nothing more, in the end, than craning your head out the car window to see if there’s anyone still left inside the car totalled at the side of the motorway.