It’s tempting to think that Dan Brown believes everything he reads on Wikipedia. The man seems to have absolutely no bullshit meter. He’s also one of the most powerful authors around right now, probably able to get whatever he wants published. These two problems combine to kill his novel The Lost Symbol, which is suspenseful in fits and starts, but often ends up buried under a mountain of minutiae.
Since The Da Vinci Code has become a much-jeered-at phenomenon, it’s easy to forget that it was reviewed fairly positively when it was released. It’s also easy to forget how quickly Brown’s re-appropriation of old, largely debunked conspiracy theories rocketed through the culture. Improbably, even though Da Vinci Code was roughly 70 percent exposition, it worked as a book. Brown’s re-imagining of the great European capitals as progressive levels on an art-history-based puzzle videogame was good, pulpy fun.
For The Lost Symbol, Brown has crafted yet another variation on this formula, right down to an odd-looking assassin (in this case, heavily tattooed), as though he has a Da Vinci Code Mad Libs book somewhere for plot inspiration. Symbol’s core plot—Code protagonist Robert Langdon rushes around Washington D.C. to stop a supervillain plot somehow tied into the secret history of the Masons—is about as well-executed as this sort of thing can be. But the plot only takes up half the book. The other half is Brown ladling his research tidbits atop everything else, to the point where the real story ends with about 40 pages of exposition left to be doled out.
Brown’s writing is still more functional than deft, and his characters remain ciphers, largely defined through their occupations. But he still knows how to tie a bunch of ridiculous conspiracy wanking into a cohesive plot. He just didn’t need so much goofy trivia to pad it out. There are minor plot points involving the carcass of a giant squid, the designs on a dollar bill, and Darth Vader, while a fairly major plot point revolves around science that sounds mostly made-up. It’s easy to see what Brown is trying to do here: He’s trying to make Washington into a touristy bastion of weirdness, à la Rome, Paris, and London in his previous novels. But most of the time, he just seems to be trying too hard.