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The Conspiracy Artist

Boris Kachka
"Ten things I like about you, Lost Symbol."
09/28/09 at 09:00

Three unrelated thoughts, my friends:

A. I’m very happy Sam imagined Dan Brown as a travel writer, because I have a confession to make: I’m the worst kind of tourist. Everyone unfortunate enough to have joined me in a foreign country has seen me unfold maps in busy intersections, read aloud Let’s Go chapters on medieval history in the naves of soaring cathedrals, and generally dart around like a headless chicken in search of secret portals of knowledge. I like to hit a café now and then, but only if it’s along the route of my death march from the modern-art museum to the colorful working-class neighborhood I read about in that Nathan Englander book. I'll wager that my own brand of checklist tourism results in as many blisters, mid-sidewalk pivots, and disappointing red herrings as maybe one of Langdon’s quieter nights out. Seeing such behavior in a best-selling novel (even if I have no intention of making a Lost Symbol pilgrimage — which readers began doing the morning the book came out) is heartening to me, and makes me feel a little less alone. If Dan Brown took up a gig with Frommer’s, I’d put his name on my Amazon wish list that very day.

B. The intrusion of fact into novels is a trend that, I think, extends far beyond the thriller genre. I know many cultured readers, snobbish in all the proper ways, who relish a novel most for what they learn from it. Take the sleeper hit The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, which is partly about a quiet Parisian concierge who privately muses on Husserl, Kant, opera, and many other enthusiasms. There’s plenty of character development, but word of mouth has largely revolved around its references. Upon reading it, my father Netflixed a film by Yasujiro Ozu; he’s now a big fan. Historical novels, memoirs, and travelogues are popular for much the same reason. Books are now meant to instruct, notwithstanding the lament of so many fiction writers that the didactic is the enemy of the artistic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but it does say something about why people read now, doesn’t it? Bob Gottlieb may have helped us get here, but we were already headed this way, even before current events awoke some Americans to the fact that there’s a big, complicated world out there. It’s something books are particularly good at, much more so than movies. Fact — or “fact” — is their added value, their niche appeal, and I think it sustains the industry.

C. I love that Sam, in this Reading Room and others, relishes the heavy rhetorical lifting of defending the virtually indefensible. I’d like to help him out: Here are ten things I like about you, Lost Symbol (mostly in earnest):

1. “The void”: There is something primal and terrifying about the pitch-black space where Katherine ends up outsmarting Mal’akh via strut and open cell phone.
2. The use of the word “cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine.”
3. The non-proverbial giant squid in the ethanol.
4. Best character introduction: “The underpaid female security guard.”
5. Best passage: “His body had returned to him, although he wished it had not. His throat and lungs burned. This world felt hard and cruel.”
6. Langdon’s reference to “a plot twist in a mediocre thriller,” which happens to have been Dan Brown’s first book, Digital Fortress.
7. Mal’akh’s blond wig and concealer, which I imagine makes him look like this.
8. The Library of Congress: Both Brown’s descriptions and the chase scenes.
9. CIA Office of Security Director Inoue Sato: sinister tough-lady maverick.
10. The time-out Langdon takes from processing the sight of his friend’s severed hand to explain what a “handequin” is.