Title: Lost Symbol
Author: Dan Brown
Brown, Dan (2019). The Lost Symbol. New York: Doubleday
Date Updated: April 29, 2015
Review by Maureen Dowd
The new Dan Brown puzzler is the scariest one yet.
It’s not so much the barbarous machinations of the villain, another one-dimensional, self-mortifying hulk, that sends chills down your spine. Or the plot, which is an Oedipal MacGuffin.
No, the terrifying thing about The Lost Symbol is that Brown—who did not flinch when the Vatican both condemned the The Da Vinci Code and curtailed the filming of Angels & Demons in Rome—clearly got spooked by that other powerful, secretive ancient sect, the Masons.
His book is a desperate attempt to ingratiate himself with the Masons, rather than to interpret the bizarre Masonic rites and symbols that illuminate—as in Illuminati!—how the ultimate elite private boys’ club has conspired to shape the nation’s capital and Western civilization ever since George Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol building in a Masonic ritual wearing full Masonic regalia, including a darling little fringed satin apron. If the Masons are more intimidating than the Vatican, if Brown has now become part of their semiotic smoke screen, then all I can say is, God help us all.
Or as Brown, who is more addicted to italics than that other breathless Brown, Cosmo Girl Helen Gurley, might put it: What the hell?
Of course, who can blame him? How can you not be frightened by a brotherhood that includes Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny; Buzz Aldrin; and Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s?
During the five years he researched this book, did Brown begin to believe those sensational stories about how, if you expose the secrets of the Masons, they will slit your throat? Did he discover that the Masons are not merely a bunch of old guys dressed up in funny costumes enjoying a harmless night away from the wives? Could they really be, as a recent Discovery Channel documentary on the ancient order wondered, “Godless conspirators bound to a death pledge who infiltrate institutions and run the world”?
Did Brown decipher the cryptic documents locked in a safe at the C.I.A.—founded by another Mason, Harry Truman!—and figure out that some of those wild tales were true? That Jack the Ripper was a Mason whose identity was covered up by the Masonic police commissioner? That Salieri and others murdered Mozart after the young Masonic composer revealed some of the order’s secret symbols in “The Magic Flute”?
I was really looking forward to Brown’s excavation of Washington’s mystical power, ancient portals, secret passageways and shadow worlds. As a native, I’ve loved the monuments here since I was little. I’ve often driven past the Scottish Rite Masonic temple with its two sphinxes on 16th Street. And my first memory as a little girl was picking up my dad from work at night from the brightly lighted Capitol. I was eager to learn occult lore about our venerable marble temples and access the lost wisdom of the ages.
So I happily curled up with Robert Langdon, the author’s anodyne, tweedy doppelgänger, and suppressed my annoyance that the Harvard symbologist was still wearing his Mickey Mouse watch, hand-grinding his Sumatra coffee beans and refusing to entangle with the latest brainy babe who materializes to help untangle ancient secrets.
This book’s looker, Katherine Solomon, is a lithe, gray-eyed expert in Noetic science, the study of “the untapped potential of the human mind.” Brown must also want to explore the untapped potential of the human body, since he has made his heroine 50 years old, something that no doubt caused the Hollywood studio suits to spritz their Zico coconut water. Katherine, a few years older than Langdon, may be a tribute to Brown’s wife and amanuensis, Blythe, who is 12 years older and helped him write “187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman.”
Emotions are the one thing Dan Brown can’t seem to decipher. His sex scenes are encrypted. Even though Katherine seems like Langdon’s soul mate—she even knows how to weigh souls—their most torrid sex scenes consist of Robert winking at her or flashing her a lopsided grin.
Brown’s novels are obviously inspired by Indiana Jones and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But he can only emulate the galloping narrative drive and the fascination with mythological archetypes, pyramids, Holy Grails, treasure maps and secret codes; he can’t summon the sexy, playful side of the Spielberg-Lucas legacy.
His metaphors and similes thud onto the page. Inoue Sato, an intelligence official investigating a disembodied hand bearing a Masonic ring and iconic tattoos that shows up in the Capitol Rotunda, “cruised the deep waters of the C.I.A. like a leviathan who surfaced only to devour its prey.” Insights don’t simply come to characters: “Then, like an oncoming truck, it hit her,” or “The revelation crashed over Langdon like a wave.” And just when our hero thinks it’s safe to go back in the water, another bad metaphor washes over him: “His head ached now, a roiling torrent of interconnected thoughts.”
You can practically hear the eerie organ music playing whenever Mal’akh, the clichéd villain whose eyes shine “with feral ferocity,” appears. He goes from sounding like a parody of a Bond bad guy (“You are a very small cog in a vast machine,” he tells Langdon) to a parody of Woody Allen (“The body craves what the body craves,” he thinks).
But Brown tops himself with these descriptions: “Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations,” and “Hanging beneath the archway, his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.”
Brown has always written screenplays masquerading as novels, but now he’s also casting. Warren Bellamy, the Masonic architect of the Capitol, is described as an elderly African-American man with close-cropped, graying hair who enunciates his words with crisp precision: “Bellamy was lithe and slender, with an erect posture and piercing gaze that exuded the confidence of a man in full control of his surroundings.” Morgan Freeman, call Ron Howard.
The Bellamy character provides another opportunity for Brown to burnish the Masons, as when the architect tells Langdon: “The craft of Freemasonry has given me a deep respect for that which transcends human understanding. I’ve learned never to close my mind to an idea simply because it seems miraculous.”
The author has gotten rich and famous without attaining a speck of subtlety. A character never just stumbles into blackness. It must be inky blackness. A character never just listens in shock. He listens in utter shock.
And consider this fraught interior monologue by the head of the Capitol Police: “Chief Anderson wondered when this night would end. A severed hand in my Rotunda? A death shrine in my basement? Bizarre engravings on a stone pyramid? Somehow, the Redskins game no longer felt significant.”
My dad always said in his day that the Masons were not welcoming to Catholics. The Catholic Church once considered the Masons so anti-Catholic, Catholics who joined were threatened with excommunication. Now the church hierarchy merely disapproves. (They like secret rites, blood rituals and the exclusion of women only when they do it.) But Langdon suggests to his Harvard students that the Masons are “refreshingly open-minded” and do not “discriminate in any way.” To a student protesting that Masonry sounds like a “freaky cult,” Langdon counters that it’s “a system of morality.” He notes, “The Masons are not a secret society . . . they are a society with secrets.”
He debunks stories of the founding fathers’ supposedly building a Satanic pentacle and the Masonic compass and square into the capital’s street design, scoffing, “If you draw enough intersecting lines on a map, you’re bound to find all kinds of shapes.”
The Masons are represented in the dazzling person of Peter Solomon, Katherine’s older brother, a handsome, wealthy historian and philanthropist who runs the Smithsonian Institution and inspired the young Langdon’s interest in symbols.
In interviews, Brown has said he was tempted to join the Masons, calling their philosophy a “beautiful blueprint for human spirituality.” In the next opus, Langdon will probably be wearing a red Shriner’s fez with his Burberry turtleneck and Harris tweed.
In this book, Langdon helps stop the villain from releasing a video to YouTube that he has surreptitiously taped during his Masonic initiation rites. The blindfolded initiate drinks blood-red wine out of a human skull and has a dagger pressed to his bare chest; he has to take part in an enactment of his own brutal murder—“there were simulated blows to his head, including one with a Mason’s stone maul”—and hear a biblical reference to human sacrifice, “the submission of Abraham to the Supreme Being by proffering Isaac, his firstborn son.” These are meant partly as warnings about what can befall anyone who leaks the order’s secrets—warnings Dan Brown clearly took to heart.
“Langdon could already tell that the video was an unfair piece of propaganda,” Brown writes, adding that the symbologist thought to himself, “the truth will be twisted . . . as it always is with the Masons.” Brown skitters away from giving us the book we expected: one that might have clued us in on which present-day politicians are still Masons and what mumbo jumbo they’re up to.
That job was left to Eamon Javers of Politico, who uncovered a list of Freemasons in Congress that reads like a vast right-wing conspiracy. Joe “You lie!” Wilson is a member of the Sinclair Lodge of West Columbia, S.C. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House minority whip, who’s trying to suffocate President Obama’s health care plan, is a member of a Richmond lodge his dad and uncle belonged to. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who chimed in against “death panels,” urged Javers: “Don’t judge us by the funny hats we wear.”
Even more ominously, President Obama suddenly left the White House on a recent night and went to the Washington Monument, the obelisk that figures in Brown’s climactic scene, and stayed inside for 20 minutes. If you add the 13 minutes it probably took to walk to the limo and drive back to the White House and return to his residence, you reach the magic Masonic number of 33!
In the end, as with The Da Vinci Code, there’s no payoff. Brown should stop worrying about unfinished pyramids and worry about unfinished novels. At least Spielberg and Lucas gave us an Ark and swirling, dissolving humans. We don’t get any ancient wisdom that “will profoundly change the world as you know it”—just a lot of New Agey piffle about how we are the gods we’ve been waiting for. (And a father-son struggle for global domination, as though we didn’t get enough of that with the Bushes.)
What the hell, Dan?