At midnight on Monday evening, copies of the latest book by Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol, went on sale to interested consumers of fast paced bullshit. A direct sequel to The Da Vinci Code, the new novel features Brown's go-to protagonist Robert Langdon, performing all manner of breathtaking off-the-cuff art appreciation while on the run from shadowy forces. More than that, Brown's latest is a stirring gong clash for the publishing world: proof that you don't need wizards or vampires to make your book a bestseller, so long as you write for a fifth grade audience.
To prepare for this event, last night I camped out at my local bookstore to get a copy. Cracked doesn't rely on advance copies for review, as those are frequently sent out to reviewers in fragrant, jewel encrusted wrappings, perhaps to tempt less upstanding critics into squeezing more favorable reviews out into the toilet bowls that are their respective publications. That's right, here at Cracked we buy our copies for review, if not shoplift them outright.
That's Our Commitment To You.
Six hectic hours of caffeine fueled reading later and I'm here to report to you on whether this book is worth your time or, more accurately, whether the first 80 and last six pages are worth your time. The short answer: Yes, but only because we both know how valuable your time is.
The novel begins with Robert Langdon being invited to speak at a conference in Washington by a man who will inevitably die in the first few pages. Sure enough, after arriving in the Capitol building, he discovers a gruesome murder scene laden with dense Masonic imagery and blood. Langdon then spends the next couple of pages kicking down doors and looking behind curtains, trying to find who's fucking with him. He is pissed. “Who do you think I am, fucking Angela Lansbury?” he screams.
With no response forthcoming to his query, Langdon reluctantly takes on the role of elderly woman detective one more time, to investigate this murder and the preposterous circumstances behind it. As was widely rumored, Freemasonry plays a key role in this novel, particular its ties to Washington - both the man and the city. A whirlwind trip around D.C. offers scenes set in the Capitol building, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, where Langdon decodes some of the dense symbolism present in the famous works of art there. The central secret all these works point to is too good to spoil, but let's just say that George Washington's penis was made out of solid diamond and he used it to communicate with aliens. I won't say anything more.
By fucking them. OK, that's it. Not another word.
Unfortunately, setting the novel in the nation's capital makes it feel like the book is covering the same ground as those National Treasure films. It really feels like the lengthy delay between the publication of The Lost Symbol and The Da Vinci Code may have cost Brown some of his momentum--he's been overtaken by his imitators. Still, Brown's eye for detail and knowledge of the minutiae of famous historical sites is superb, and it immediately becomes clear he's still a master at weaving a gripping yarn. A scene where Langdon and his companion visit the Lincoln Memorial and climb up the hollow pant leg, to discover the true Emancipation Proclamation (it's a huge gold penis) packs more tension and interest than a dozen Nick Cage turdstravaganzas.
I won't spoil who the true villain of the novel is (let's just say he's the CEO of Apple) but the antagonist who features most prominently throughout the course of the novel is a tattooed Masonic thug named Mal'akh. Throughout the novel he uses his secret Masonic powers (polishing, grout work and levitation) to stymie Langdon's efforts at every turn. Like many of Brown's villains however, he comes across as a little flat. Worse, Brown's attempts to inject some personality via a catchphrase (“I will kick you right in the box!”) feel forced and unnatural.
Brown's greatest skill as a writer is his ability to infuse a sense of tension in all scenes, and it's in full effect here. Curiously, though, he backpedals in some scenes in an attempt to infuse a note of levity in the proceedings. This is an admirable goal, as the unrelenting tension can be overbearing at times, but many of these “comic” scenes too frequently degenerate into the realm of slapstick. What would be a nail biting chase down the Potomac, is nearly ruined when Langdon spends much of it dragging the preserved corpse of John Adams behind his boat. They end up escaping the villain and winning a waterskiing competition, but the whole chapter just felt disrespectful to me.
Langdon's romantic interest this time around is Dr. Katherine Solomon, a specialist in noetic science, which is a field I'm not even going to bother relating here. OK, I lied. It's
horseshit. Regardless of her career, like all of Langdon's companions, her sole purpose is to ask a lot of leading questions to Langdon as they rush past important pieces of art. She's also the descendant of King Solomon and has a map to the moon tattooed on her back--facts which may become relevant in later chapters. I won't spoil it for you.
The frantic pace of the book helps conceal some shortcomings. Notably, the motivations held by many of the characters break down when studied closely. In one scene, instead of waiting for the police like a normal person might, Langdon and Katherine will run off with the president's trousers in search of the next clue. Mal'akh is even worse. Bizarrely, at one point he drops everything to go to Taco Bell for Fourthmeal. The frantic pace means this will all seem to make perfect sense during a casual read through, but later on you'll think back and realize in every scene someone was eating a chalupa.
The long delay in this book sparked rumors that Brown had developed a case of writer's block. Others have less charitably suggested that, buoyed by success, Brown had developed a distaste for the formula that made him a success and was raging internally at having to write another such piece. You can see this conflict when in one early scene, a character remarks to Langdon about how much he enjoyed reading about his antics in Paris a few months ago in
The Da Vinci Code. When Langdon turns his back the character makes a "jerking off" motion with his hand. Even stranger is another scene set at a cocktail party, were actor Tom Hanks meets Langdon and tells him that he likes the “cut of his jib.” Another character nearby, introduced as Ban Drown, comments: "Can you believe the sheep who keep eating up this shit?" He then shares a high five with Tom Hanks, before they drive off together in a Hummer-limo full of models. After that, the next 11 pages are left blank (although in my copy a couple appeared to be stuck together with spit).
When all was said and done though, I ultimately enjoyed the first 80 and last six pages of The Lost Symbol, and have every reason to believe the rest of the pages were about as good. It was fast paced, interesting and was printed in a nice, easy to read typeface. There were shortcomings, but despite those, I'm give this book the highest rating I've ever awarded a book here on Cracked: two stars.
Special bonus content for die-hard Bucholz-fans (hi grandma): An off-site article I wrote for the upcoming film Zombieland, entitled How Iconic Movie Characters Would Deal With A Zombie Attack. You should definitely check it out.