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The Conspiracy Artist

Sam Anderson
"Beautiful and democratic and sweet."
09/24/09 at 17:00

Boris, I'm glad you brought up those teaching scenes they might be my favorite thing in all of Dan Brown. I find them so relentlessly naïve and sweet and unrealistic and charming. ("The students erupted into bewildered and thunderous applause.") And they're so deeply sincere I feel like they do probably give us our best look at Brown's own private vision of how he relates to his readership. He wants to be the professor, wowing us with his snazzy presentation of all this esoteric knowledge. He's going to open our eyes to help us see what's been right there in front of us all along: Freemasonry, the true story of Christianity, the power of positive psychology, the secret meaning of the world's most famous tourist buildings. The purity of his desire to make adult readers erupt into bewildered and thunderous applause and his belief that this could actually happen is almost enough to make me break into bewildered and thunderous applause.

It's true, yes, that he's often an annoying teacher, because he doesn't trust us to understand things and therefore ends up cooing like a Teletubby. The Lost Symbol is the only book that has ever made my jaw literally drop through the sheer flagrancy of its repetition and it did that three times. (Remember Chapter 25, when he started inexplicably repeating the word "iPhone" eight times in three pages?)

But let's not get carried away let's not (as a self-castrated psychopathic Freemason might say) throw the giant squid out with the ethanol. Dan Brown's skill as a teacher is a huge part of what's made him such a worldwide smashing success. For me, one of the great unironic pleasures of reading him is that I'm constantly learning things. A certain amount of educational info-dumping is, of course, built into the thriller genre: You read Jurassic Park and learn that dinosaurs have skeletons like birds, you read The Hunt for Red October and learn about submarine engine rooms. But Brown goes kind of crazy with the pedagogical instinct, and I think that's what sets him apart from other thriller writers.

The Lost Symbol is obsessed with teaching. Its epigraph comes from a book called The Secret Teachings of All Ages, and its characters teach constantly whether in those fantasy lecture halls or in insanely long speeches to one another while being chased by psychopaths and CIA helicopters. Somewhere in the middle of all that, the reader manages to ingest all kinds of interesting factoids: about recent advances in heat-vision goggles, the basics of Noetic "science," the use of breathable liquid (!) in torture, that the U.S. Capitol used to have a giant hole in the floor, that the Smithsonian Museum Support Center houses (among millions of other things) a kayak made out of baleen. I found myself writing "interesting" (and even "fascinating") in the margins many times. So let's at least give Brown credit for this: The man has a talent for curating unusual (and sometimes complicated) facts and making them very easy to understand. (Yes, sometimes those facts turn out not to be exactly true, and/or he repeats them maddeningly but nevertheless.) If he didn't happen to be the world’s most successful thriller writer, I could imagine him writing best-selling travel books or pop histories.

As irritating as DB's Teletubby habits are, I think they might actually stem from something positive and here we get back to his essential Americanness. Dan Brown is driven by a crazy but admirable Utopian fantasy: He wants everyone to understand everything all the time. The ultimate fantasy in Brown’s novels is that every human alive will suddenly gain access to powerful hidden knowledge: elitism for the masses. There’s something so beautiful and democratic and sweet about that. I like to think of Brown as one of our great sunny American dork-heroes like Bob Ross or Rick Steves or Pete Seeger or Mr. Rogers. There's always a skeptic in a Dan Brown argument and the skeptic never wins.

Sarah, I think this might answer your question about why Brown's villains are always asexual: He wants us to understand everything, and violent destructive sexuality has never been easy to understand. So it's just not on the curriculum.