Can you stop a speeding juggernaut? When it comes to THE LOST SYMBOL, I'm sure many would like to try, but I'm not one of them, as my review of the book in the Barnes & Noble Review - where I will also wear the monthly mantle of "The Criminalist" - more or less attests. It's a long piece, but I wanted to take a more methodical approach that could be read at a later date, instead of feeling like I had to burp out the first insta-reaction popping into my brain. Here's a couple of choice excerpts:
First, a confession: I liked The Da Vinci Code. This news is even more of a surprise to me than it might be to those who, years ago, heard me quip that I quit reading it because "the moment the albino assassin came through the door, I left." The novel's clunky opening sentence ("Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the archway of the Grand Gallery") foreshadows Brown's penchant for stilted turns of phrase, and the most loudly proclaimed facts about ancient rites and secret societies are often nothing of the sort, but by now I understand why the fascination of 80 million readers made The Da Vinci Code such a massive phenomenon....
...Let's get right to the bottom line: The Lost Symbol works, albeit with reservations. It works because whatever mental alchemy Dan Brown needed to turn away from the noise and ramp up his creative signal, to stay away from distractions and focus on the story, takes hold with the opening utterance that "the secret is how to die." From the first sentence, we know what we're in for: there's a traitor in the midst of a sequestered society -- this time, as long-rumored, it's the Freemasons -- whose members include the most powerful people in the land, and our villain hungrily searches for the solution to an age-old proof known to few, doubted by many, and scoffed at by far more. Last time out the quest was for the Holy Grail; now it's for The Lost Word, or maybe, as I kept thinking of it as I turned the pages, L'Elisir Pensiero (for the Italian-challenged, that's the "Elixir of Thought.")...
For those who care to keep score, I picked up my copy of THE LOST SYMBOL just shy of 4 PM on Monday, had the first 200 pages read by the time I showed up to Gotham Hall for the launch party, finished the book at 9:30 PM, turned in the review at 11 PM and it was done and dusted by 9 AM this morning. But late yesterday, Louis Bayard at the Washington Post offered my favorite explanation of the page-turning, speed-reading appeal of Brown's thrillers: "Call it Brownian motion: a comet-tail ride of short paragraphs, short chapters, beautifully spaced reveals and, in the case of "The Lost Symbol," a socko unveiling of the killer's true identity."
It remains to be seen how the book will fare - booksellers are mighty hopeful, though one is rightfully skeptical, early prognostications are somewhat tepid and even Brown himself doesn't think "one book can save an industry" - but I wouldn't bet against the (Random) House, so to speak. That said, what does surprise me is that Brown is talking to most every major media outlet - the WSJ (already linked,) USA TODAY, the AP, Entertainment Weekly (which is so, so, not the first interview, sorry) the New York Observer, not to mention the morning shows - hell, even when I asked my one pressing question of Brown last night prior to the launch party, which was whether he had any comment on the death of his former Amherst College classmate David Foster Wallace, he answered: "I want to respect his family's privacy, as I believe he would have done of mine."
Still, let's give Oline Cogdill the last word for now, because she pinpoints why Dan Brown and THE LOST SYMBOL is something to be pleased about, not deride:
The Da Vinci Code wasn't my favorite book, nor did it make much of an impact on me as it did some. It was mildly entertaining and certainly not as good as the works by many of the solid mystery writers I prefer.For me, it was like a potato chip; 15 minutes after it was finished I couldn't tell you what it was about.
But if The Lost Symbol brings people back to the bookstore, back to reading, then great. If The Lost Symbol gets people to talk about a BOOK, instead of the latest pop star's bad behavior, then I say great.
And if The Lost Symbol inspires readers to maybe buy another book or two while they pick up Brown's novel, then I say GREAT.
UPDATE: John Fox has a very different take, troubled as he is by the generally positive tone of the reviews printed thus far:
It seems like this book has superseded its own status of book, and
become more like a weather vane for the publishing industry as a whole
-- a sacred totem that no reviewer dare out-and-out criticize because
so many in the publishing industry want (need!) this book to succeed.
Could it be that massive popularity on this scale trumps any kind of literary merit? That people are just in awe of the Brown Juggernaut, and choose to bow rather than fight the power?
Well, Thom Geier at Entertainment Weekly's an immediate naysayer, and they'll run a rather lengthy interview with Brown in the magazine's next issue, so clearly that particular publication had no qualms about negative criticism. The Guardian's Mark Lawson makes a very good case for why THE LOST SYMBOL is a "rollicking piece of tosh," and Laura Miller more or less throws up her hands in the face of an apathetic reading public. But the kinds of literary crimes that Fox would like to see reviewers bring up just aren't there; this isn't like Thomas Harris turning Hannibal Lecter, a genuinely frightening villain, into a cannibalistic Mary Sue seated at the head table with his adversary-turned-lover Clarice Starling. That warranted the mounds of criticism it got. This isn't even like BREAKING DAWN, which stretched the Bella/Edward will they/won't they to natural limits, got her married, de-virginized and pregnant and embedded some rather disturbing commentary on feminine passivity and male stalking. It's breathless entertainment designed to provoke discussion, but not necessarily serious discussion. Perhaps if THE LOST SYMBOL had committed itself to being more overtly political there would have been more fiery critical rhetoric (which may come if, say, Glenn Beck decides to take up the "cause"...)
That said, I'll cop to one thing: Ed Champion has a point about last night's party, and while I attended because I thought it would give the piece a bit of extra color, in hindsight that wasn't strictly necessary - and something I'll think more than twice about doing in future.