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The Conspiracy Artist

Boris Kachka
"The magical number square that solves the puzzle."
09/23/09 at 17:57

Yes, Dan Brown is America. Dan Brown also hates America.

Well, not really, but I needed an attention-getting opening. A short one. In italics.

What I mean to say is that Dan Brown underestimates the intelligence of the American public—and he isn’t going broke. But I don't mean to say he is purely venal in this regard. He’s just a natural pedagogue, and the dangerous fantasy, Sam, is that we are all his fawning students.

Geoff, your analyses of the superbadness of the Dan Brown Elements of Style (I see a holiday book!) are spot-on and hilarious, but isn’t it possible there’s some intention—or at least psychology—beneath the blather? In a book that took six years to write, can utter carelessness alone account for italicized thoughts rephrasing dialogue that’s just been spoken, the recap in one two-page chapter of the action covered in the preceding two-page chapter, or the repetition of word strings as stupefying as "Systems security specialist Mark Zoubianis"?

Remember the strange, repetitive cooing of the Teletubbies? How creepy they were, how insipid they seemed to those of us raised on Sesame Street? And yet, we were told, they made perfect sense to infants; they were designed in part by a speech therapist to stimulate smooth preverbal baby brains. The Lost Symbol is Teletubbies for grown-ups—or maybe preteens.

It's tempting, especially while lathered up in his frothy conspiracies, to imagine Brown himself unlocking the Ancient Mysteries of the Lowest Common Denominator in the dark basement of his palatial estate like an evil castrato practicing “his own breed of science.” But I don’t believe it, because (a) as Sarah pointed out in her review, Brown invests his mysteries with unfakeable enthusiasm and joy, and (b) the castrato himself is way, way off.

For me, the key to this mystery, the magical number square that solves the puzzle of Why Dan Brown Writes What (and How) He Does, lies in the ridiculous scenes set in Robert Langdon's wildly popular Harvard symbology course. Langdon can tell how enthralled his students are by the sound of their fidgeting; he asks them leading questions, like a kindergarten Socrates, and they faithfully follow down the garden path. When all is revealed, "The kids all spun around and faced front, eyes widening." It could just be another clumsy Brown description, making Harvard undergrads look like a group of toddlers shaking off their afternoon naps. But unlike the decryption of devotional paintings, teaching is a field Brown knows well. I don't know what the deal is with Amherst, Sarah, but Brown is the son of a math teacher at Exeter, and later taught English there himself (though presumably not Strunk and White). His desire to instruct infects The Lost Symbol, and makes it infectious in its gleeful geekiness. He probably loved his Exeter students, but I’ll bet he was pretty easy on them. And everyone loves a gut course.

There’s a problem with this, and it makes the book hard to take as seriously as I imagine Brown wants us to. It struck me suddenly, in a Langdonian flash, as I read Michael Cunningham’s Sunday review of Margaret Drabble’s odd new memoir about jigsaw puzzles, The Pattern in the Carpet. Cunningham quotes Drabble: “The jigsaw, with its frame, is a simulacrum of meaning, order and design … Books, too, have beginnings and endings, and they attempt to impose a pattern, to make a shape. We aim, by writing them, to make order from chaos. We fail. The admission of failure is the best that we can do. It is a form of progress.” “Order from chaos” is the explicit recurring theme of The Lost Symbol (in Latin now: “Ordo ab chao”). Drabble believes jigsaws have their place in the world, but books don’t belong in that place. Dan Brown disagrees.

I’m not sure exactly how I feel. I love puzzles, but I get more out of failing at the Saturday crossword than breezing through Monday’s. Am I a humorless prig, an elitist? Do I hate capitalism? Geoff, do your students fidget, stare, and clap like seals? I spent a year studying in Edinburgh, and met mostly cynical (and very intelligent) stoners.