Waiting for the sequel to the Da Vinci Code? Well, The Lost Symbol is definitely not the one.
The Lost Symbol is a big con. At 500-odd pages, it’s an even bigger con. It doesn’t uncover a conspiracy, it tries to end one. It doesn’t provoke or shatter or tease, but tries to reassure and empower. Very nice if you are looking for some Eckhart Tolle-Paul Coelho kind of mysticism, but is this what we want from a long and eagerly awaited sequel to that juicy conspiracy blockbuster? A quasi-mystical, over long feel-good adventure that set our wallets back by Rs. 500? The reason we breathlessly went along with the plot of The Da Vinci Code was not for the codes and symbols and chases, but for its wow-inducing revelations as it traced a secret, alternative, hidden history of Christian art and history, making us wonder how much could be true.
What is uncovered in The Lost Symbol is too esoteric for the reader to be tantalised or intrigued by: Free Masons, Washington D.C. monuments and fringe mystical religious traditions. Not exactly the kind of shocking conspiracy material Da Vinci… was made of.
The plot of The Lost Symbol, alas, is not even pseudo history but pure fiction; entirely a Dan Brown invention. A labyrinth of codes and grids and symbols minus the conspiracy frisson of DVC. What excited us in DVC was its delicious mix of history and fiction with some clever code breaking and symbol interpreting. What this sequel reveals at the end is rather fascinating and nice in that Dancing Wu Li Masters kind of way, but that’s not why I — or anyone else — picked it up in the first place.
The book becomes tiresome with some 200 pages still to go, and I thought: what an odd thing to happen to a story that takes place in some 24-odd hours. That lightening pace is there and yet we feel just as dragged about as Robert Langdon on some mystical wild goose chase.
My little tip: skip the book, wait for the movie. The movie version will nicely shrink the plot to 100 pages, and since The Lost Symbol is really an overwritten, over wrought screenplay inside the covers of a book, it’s best we leave it to Hollywood to perform some alchemy and patiently transform it into entertainment.
On finishing the book, my thoughts turned to not Dan Brown or the book, but to Sonny Mehta, chief editor at Alfred Knopf, who was one of the first in the Doubleday editorial team to read it before it came out. Mehta is known for spotting books that are literary, thrilling and sensational (The Secret History, Damage, American Psycho), so naturally we had no reason to doubt him when he pronounced the book a “brilliant and compelling thriller”. What was he thinking?
I admit that if the book was just 250 pages it could have been a little compelling, and you could even grant that the secret of the Ancient Mysteries revealed in chapter 133 (it had to be 33) sparkles with brilliant effort. (It would be worthwhile to photocopy or print that lecture by Katherine Solomon from this last chapter and distribute it around like an evangelical pamphlet).
But the whole thing is too stretched; Brown shouldn’t take it for granted that he’s taken the reader so captive. However, at 500 pages, DVC would have still sustained our interest; Brown’s skills for counter-twists, cliff hanging suspense, and roller coaster storytelling is intact in the sequel but the main edifice of the book, the Ancient Mysteries, does not sizzle and tantalise and make you go, ‘Wow, so that is what they have been hiding from us!’
For a reader to exclaim and gape in this way she has to have some familiarity with what THAT is, or who THEY are: in the DVC it was the Catholic Church, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Holy Grail, in The Lost Symbol it is the Free Masons, Albrecht Durer and the Ancient Mysteries. Who could really care what is revealed about the latter three?
Deciphering codes concealed in Durer’s “Melancholia I” does not have the oh-my-god thrill of uncovering secrets in “The Last Supper”. And to top it all, the Free Masons, the book demonstrates, are not some sinister secret society with world domination on their minds but people with more integrity than you and me with a design to make humans realise their greatest potential. And here I was hoping to find something scandalous and shocking (but they are not the Church, it would seem).
The Da Vinci Code was always a hard act to follow for anyone, even its author, but in The Lost Symbol Brown departs further away and reverses (undoes, some would say) everything he did in the prequel: there are really no conspiracies, all religions know the one truth, even the naked and tattooed villain is noble, and there really is a God —whose identity is finally revealed here for us. The Lost Symbol may be the book for those who were miffed by The Da Vinci Code. For those of us who were longing to be told more faith shattering secrets and to indulge in religious paranoia, we’ll just have to wait for the true sequel to DVC where all will be revealed. A book, I’m beginning to feel, is mostly a myth, a mere symbol, lost to us.