Quite obviously the worst book A Superfluous Man will review this year (and there was some stiff competition).
Title: The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown
Motivation: Like an albino Opus Dei-affiliated monk who penitently mortifies his flesh with flagellum and cilice, A Superfluous Man regularly subjects his sinful soul to Mr. Brown’s execrable writings.
Completed: June 22, 2012 (#42)
Recommendation: You know you will regret it, but you will probably read it anyway, if only to keep up with Tom Hanks when the inevitable movie is released.
There are entire fetid corners of the Internets devoted to deconstructing the claims of Mr. Brown’s famous The Da Vinci Code, claims that the author may in fact actually believe. As for whether it is in fact the case that Clovis I was a lineal descendant of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, let Wittgenstein have the last word: “That whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence.”
Let us first give Mr. Brown his due: he knows how to spin a good yarn, and he has a knack for crafting a suspenseful scene. For example:
He’s in here with me. In an instant, Katherine realized that the only light in the entire space was coming from her cell phone, illuminating the side of her face. “Send help,” she whispered to the guard. “And get to Wet Pod to help Trish.” Then she quietly closed her phone, extinguishing the light. Absolute darkness settled around her. She stood stock-still and breathed as quietly as possible. After a few seconds, the pungent scent of ethanol wafted out of the darkness in front of her. The smell got stronger. She could sense a presence, only a few feet in front of her on the carpet. In the silence, the pounding of Katherine’s heart seemed loud enough to give her away. Silently, she stepped out of her shoes and inched to her left, sidestepping off the carpet. The cement felt cold under her feet. She took one more step to clear the carpet. One of her toes cracked. It sounded like a gunshot in the stillness.
Today, let us celebrate the genius of Mr. Brown by subjecting The Lost Symbol to an rigorous explication du texte. Truly, Mr. Brown is not of an age, but for all time!
Step #1: Assume the Reader’s Unassailable Ignorance
Throughout his entire home, audio speakers broadcast the eerie strains of a rare recording of a castrato singing the “Lux Aeterna” from the Verdi Requiem—a reminder of a previous life. Mal’akh touched a remote control to bring on the thundering “Dies Irae.” Then, against a backdrop of crashing timpani and parallel fifths, he bounded up the marble staircase, his robe billowing as he ascended on sinewy legs.
The only extant recording of a castrato, a fellow by the name of Alessandro Moreschi, is readily available for download on iTunes. Verdi’s Requiem, which is not among the 17 pieces recorded by Moreschi, does not call for a castrato voice, although the piece does feature both a soprano and a mezzo. Such a recording would be rare, indeed!
Key Practice Point: When dropping names and recondite knowledge about obscure composers like Giuseppe Verdi, always assume that your audience is unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Step #2: Apply Paraprosdokian Structures Liberally, Particularly in Elucidation of Clichés
Langdon feigned a sad sigh. “Too bad. If that’s too freaky for you, then I know you’ll never want to join my cult.” Silence settled over the room. The student from the Women’s Center looked uneasy. “You’re in a cult?” Langdon nodded and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun god Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh.” The class looked horrified. Langdon shrugged. “And if any of you care to join me, come to the Harvard chapel on Sunday, kneel beneath the crucifix, and take Holy Communion.” The classroom remained silent. Langdon winked. “Open your minds, my friends. We all fear what we do not understand.”
No doubt the “student from the Women’s Center” was mortified to have fallen into the wily Harvard professor’s trap.
Curious to learn that after his exploits in The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, the Catholic Church still allows Prof. Langdon to take communion. Perhaps he attends Boston’s Paulist Center with Sen. Kerry?
Step #3: Sapere Aude!
Mr. Brown, like a latter-day Prometheus, wakes us from our dogmatic slumbers and bestows upon mankind the fire of rational scientific inquiry, including in cutting-edge fields like “Noetic Science”:
In 2001, in the hours following the horrifying events of September 11, the field of Noetic Science made a quantum leap forward. Four scientists discovered that as the frightened world came together and focused in shared grief on this single tragedy, the outputs of thirty-seven different Random Event Generators around the world suddenly became significantly less random. Somehow, the oneness of this shared experience, the coalescing of millions of minds, had affected the randomizing function of these machines, organizing their outputs and bringing order from chaos.
Key Practice Point: It is not hypocritical to denigrate organized religion as superstitious nonsense whilst promoting hard science in the vein of Franz Mesmer’s animal magnetism.
Step #4: Verisimilitude, verisimilitude, verisimilitude
When peopling one’s dramatis personae with memorable characters, always remember that it is critical that great art hold up a mirror to the world.
Thus, for example, if one wishes to include a director of the CIA’s Office of Security (“they spy on America’s spies”):
The overlord of the Office of Security—Director Inoue Sato—was a legend in the intelligence community. Born inside the fences of a Japanese internment camp in Manzanar, California, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Sato was a toughened survivor who had never forgotten the horrors of war, or the perils of insufficient military intelligence. Now, having risen to one of the most secretive and potent posts in U.S. intelligence work, Sato had proven an uncompromising patriot as well as a terrifying enemy to any who stood in opposition. Seldom seen but universally feared, the OS director cruised the deep waters of the CIA like a leviathan who surfaced only to devour its prey.
. . .
Director Inoue Sato was a fearsome specimen—a bristly tempest of a woman who stood a mere four feet ten inches. She was bone thin, with jagged features and a dermatological condition known as vitiligo, which gave her complexion the mottled look of coarse granite blotched with lichen. Her rumpled blue pantsuit hung on her emaciated frame like a loose sack, the open-necked blouse doing nothing to hide the scar across her neck. It had been noted by her coworkers that Sato’s only acquiescence to physical vanity appeared to be that of plucking her substantial mustache.
Key Practice Point: What could be more plausible than a “fearsome” “leviathan” of a 4’10″ female, hirsute, blotchy, elderly ex-internee cum spymaster?
Step #5: Always Mystify with References to Ivy League Arcana
Despite Langdon’s six-foot frame and athletic build, Anderson saw none of the cold, hardened edge he expected from a man famous for surviving an explosion at the Vatican and a manhunt in Paris. This guy eluded the French police . . . in loafers? He looked more like someone Anderson would expect to find hearthside in some Ivy League library reading Dostoyevsky.
Perhaps I should have spent more time in physical training so as to improve my chances of eluding those crack French gumshoes, the terror of criminals everywhere.
Step #6: Paint Your Heroes and Villains in Shades of Gray
Even so, Mal’akh had learned something else from Katherine. Something that has earned her a few extra hours of life today. Katherine had confirmed for him that all of her research was in one location, safely locked inside her lab. I must destroy it. Katherine’s research was poised to open a new door of understanding, and once the door was opened even a crack, others would follow. It would just be a matter of time before everything changed. I cannot let that happen. The world must stay as it is . . . adrift in ignorant darkness.
The ellipses appear in the original, the better to dramatize Mal’akh’s search for just the right description of how he likes his world: “adrift in ignorant darkness.” Let’s hear it for darkness!
Key Practice Point: Evil-doers generally are willfully and self-consciously evil people. They have a choice between good and evil, and weighing it all in the balance of conscience, they choose evil. The drama of human life is fundamentally Manichean: Bad guys are bad because they hate all good things, like Noetic Science and…stuff like that.
Step #7: Ivy League Professors Are Just Like They Appear in Love Story and The Paper Chase
Langdon hurried over and warmly shook his friend’s hand. “What in the world is a Yale blue blood doing on the Crimson campus before dawn?”
See supra at Step #5. Can never have too much clubbish Ivy League bonhomie.
Step #8: The Adjective “Elegant” is Never Cloying
Mr. Brown uses the word “elegant” on twenty-six occasions and “elegance” twice in The Lost Symbol. Among items that warrant this descriptor: the bad guy’s “gait”; some bookshelves; a bathroom; the number 33; a protagonist’s “aquiline face and regal gray eyes”; and the lone African-American character, upon whom Mr. Brown (quite patronizingly) bestows the Homeric epithet of “an elegant African American” at each appearance. Perhaps Leonardo DaVinci is not the only one to write in coded language, Mr. Brown?
Key Practice Point: Similarly, when making reference to Prof. Langdon’s memory, it is absolutely essential to describe it as “eidetic” (3 times in The Lost Symbol alone—countless times in previous novels). Rosy-fingered Dawn and Swift-Footed Achilles would be proud!
Step #9: Mix Your Metaphors Whenever Possible
The wintry night air was gushing through her shattered window, buffeting her body like an arctic wind.
Can’t you just feel that wind gush? Brrrr… Reminds me of the rain whistling outside my window.
Step #10: Use Polysyllabic Adjectives and Adverbs Unsparingly, Unstintingly, Frequently, and Repeatedly
Dean Galloway felt alive. Like all mortals, he knew the time was coming when he would shed his mortal shell, but tonight was not the night. His corporeal heart was beating strong and fast . . . and his mind felt sharp. There is work to be done.
A lesser auteur might have written: “Galloway’s heart was racing. He knew his death was coming soon, but not tonight.”
Key Practice Point: Please note the importance of the word “corporeal” in the above passage. Without it, a reader might have confused the “strong and fast” beating of Dean Galloway’s “corporeal” heart with the beating of his figurative heart.
Basta! And see you again next time.