Brown’s latest is full of clues, codes - and clichés

By Chuck Leddy
September 18, 2009

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Let’s begin with the obvious. Dan Brown’s new novel, following the epic success of “The Da Vinci Code,’’ will be a commercial triumph, a bookselling behemoth that should boost the tottering publishing industry. Nothing will keep the legions of Brown’s fans from spending late nights curled up reading the latest doings of his literary hero, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon.

Higher book sales and more readers are certainly good things, but what’s less so in this latest adventure is Brown’s paint-by-numbers plot, his wooden dialogue, his dull prose style, his unintentionally comic narrative grandeur, and his two-dimensional characters. Even Brown’s most rabid fans don’t need a secret decoder ring to know that his prose is leaden (No editor’s alchemy could transform it into gold), and that his characters sound more like mouthpieces for the author’s off-the-wall philosophizing about the nature of God than they do real human beings.

Needless to say, New Hampshire resident Brown takes us on a winding search for mysterious and important truths. Professor Langdon is again our guide, and he moves the book’s quest forward by deciphering the meaning behind various secret codes, hidden maps, cryptic paintings, occult symbols, ancient books, concealed entranceways, and numerous inscriptions. Brown’s plot involves examining Freemasonry and moving his characters from one place in Washington, D.C., to the next, where they’ll find a hidden clue that leads them to another hidden clue. Meanwhile, Langdon explains the meaning of these mysteries in windy passages that feel like college lectures. (Some readers may find themselves wanting to take notes to prep for the final exam.)

Perhaps the most notable quality of “The Lost Symbol’’ is the breezy manner in which Brown’s characters and his narrative examine truth, God, and other grand topics. “Nowadays, eunuchs were shunned, although the ancients understood the inherent power of this transmutational sacrifice. Even the early Christians had heard Jesus Himself extol its virtues,’’ Brown writes. Readers are left wondering why “transmutational sacrifice’’ gets such a bad rap. “Great men throughout history have made deep personal sacrifices to protect the Ancient Mysteries. You and I must do the same,’’ one character tells Langdon, sounding much like a boss trying to convince an exhausted employee to work a weekend shift.

In his writing, Brown has a penchant for clichés and purple prose. Screams are “deafening’’ or “bloodcurdling,’’ though silences can also be “deafening.’’ When one character opens a door, Brown writes, “she felt as if an emotional floodgate had burst. All the fear and confusion . . . came pouring through.’’ Brown also offers the occasional odd simile: “Langdon felt his mind go blank, like an untuned television set broadcasting only static.’’ And over the course of a few sentences, Brown tells us that an evil character has eyes “which shone with feral ferocity’’ and “were wild like those of a rabid animal.’’ He rarely uses two words where 20 will do.

Yet, to be fair, the book has its moments of pure, cheesy fun. After Langdon uncovers the meaning of an inscription, Brown has him metaphorically slapping his forehead: “Its meaning had been staring him in the face all night,’’ no matter that it’s been a mystery for centuries. We move forward to the next clue.

Brown’s plot is like a set of Russian nested dolls, with one revelation hiding another. He takes this mystical quest stuff quite seriously, and his unabashed enthusiasm for mystical topics such as pyramids, ancient wisdom, and Masonic initiation rites has an infectious quality that doubtless fuels his popularity. While readers seeking literary genius or spiritual direction from Brown will probably be disappointed, the many fans of “The Da Vinci Code’’ who seek an excuse to stay up reading well past their bedtimes are likely to race headlong into the maze.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

By Dan Brown
Doubleday, 509 pp., $29.95

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