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The Conspiracy Artist

Geoffrey K. Pullum
"A cacophony of poppycock."
09/29/09 at 09:30

As The Lost Symbol races to the end of its story, everyone keeps rushing from place to place in a Cadillac Escalade or a CIA helicopter. The action moves from the Senate sub-basement to the Washington Cathedral to an underground dungeon to a penthouse chamber in a Masonic lodge and from there back to the Capitol. Matrices of astrological symbols and Masonic symbolism are decoded breathlessly by people who keep saying "Don't you see?" to each other, and repeating recently uttered phrases to themselves in italics. There are miraculous escapes from certain death, even an apparent return from the dead.

I became tired of noting down page numbers for some of the clunkiest sentences I had ever seen in print, and resigned myself to the increasing tendency for the first page of a chapter to summarize the previous one as if I were an idiot, and I started trying to roll with the plot. I stopped counting the ill-chosen adjectives and adverbs and focused on content.

The final chapters of interpretations and revelations and inspirations are a hard slog. Dan grinds the world's religions together and mixes them to a stiff paste with Masonic rituals and spiritualism. He constantly draws profound revelations from the architecture of Washington, D.C. Ultimately good conquers evil, and family love triumphs over sadistic and pointless evildoing, but everything hides a deeper mystery, and the mysteries turn out to be some familiar old orthodoxy: God lives in all of us, and everything is going to be all right ... it's a cacophony of poppycock, it really is.

And yet in some ways it is an optimistic and thoroughly beneficent cacophony. Science, the church, the Freemasons, the police, even the CIA are all on the side of what is good and right. It's morning in America. The full potential of humanity is about to be unleashed. New hope is dawning.

The villain personifies just about everything that America hates, with his cruelty, vengefulness, satanic rituals, torture chamber, lust for power, Arabic-sounding name, blond wig, excessive wealth, and overabundance of tattoos. We are guiltlessly glad to see him die his horrible (yet accidental) death.

America, in this novel, turns out to be a nation rooted in deeply Christian values and also mysticism; devout, yet tolerant to the point of agnosticism, and friendly to science. The Freemasons may do weird things in rooms with no windows (Robert Langdon takes Holy Communion every Sunday morning but he won't join the Masons and drink Pinot Noir out of a skull), but deep down they, too, have their hearts in the right place. Dan ties it all together (forgetting only a young woman drowned in a vat of ethanol early on; he forgets about her, no one grieves for her, and the body is apparently never discovered).

In this novel, everyone you thought was trustworthy actually is trustworthy (none of that Leigh Teabing treachery from DVC). The novel's third reel is packed with spectacular action and special effects. It all seems cleverly put together... and yet it's all childish nonsense when you stop and look at it again (in 2004 my intensely intellectual philosopher partner Barbara compared Dan Brown's plotting to the Hardy Boys mysteries, and Adam Gopnik follows her in last week's The New Yorker).

Americans have been buying The Lost Symbol at tens of thousands of copies per hour, and I have no doubt that its cleverly vague religious theme will move many readers to take its suggestion of deep secret truths very seriously. A large percentage of them, if they are representative of the country, will not believe that species evolve through natural selection.

For some reason I found myself thinking of a remark I once heard Stephen Jay Gould make after a lecture at Stanford University. Yes, he admitted in answer to a question, America is profoundly anti-intellectual. But the great and hopeful thing about America is that we're not committed to it. I hope he was right.