The Lost Symbol
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1754
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is a sequel to two previous best-selling novels, Angels and Demons (2000) and The Da Vinci Code (2003). The series’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, is once again featured, as he finds himself involved in yet another mystery centering on codes, symbols, and legends, this time in Washington, D.C. Arriving at the Capitol to give a last-minute lecture at the Smithsonian Institution for his old friend and mentor Peter Solomon, Langdon is instead horrified to find his friend’s severed hand, with its distinctive thirty-third-degree Masonic ring, in the National Statuary Hall. Via cell phone, Langdon learns that he has been duped into coming to Washington by the man who now holds Peter captiveand who demands that Langdon find and unlock a portal leading to ancient mysteries. Unhappily, Langdon realizes that he has also been tricked into bringing with him a small, wrapped, cube-shaped box that Peter entrusted to his safekeeping years earliera secret object that Peter believes holds great power and that he fears powerful people may try to steal.
Indeed, powerful people begin to converge upon Langdon immediately: In particular, he encounters Inoue Sato, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Office of Security. A no-nonsense woman, Sato seems less interested in the severed hand than in what secret information Langdon may be hiding. Guided by Capitol police chief Trent Anderson, the three make their way into the depths of the Senate’s subbasement, where they find a locked room belonging to Peter Solomon full of Masonic regalia, as well as a hidden stone pyramid with cryptic engraving on one side. An X ray of Langdon’s day bag transmitted to Sato’s BlackBerry reveals that the package he is carrying contains a small golden pyramid capstone. Threatened with CIA detention and questioning, Langdon is rescued by the sudden appearance of Warren Bellamy, the Capitol’s architect (or supervisor), who spirits away Langdon and the two parts of the pyramid.
Meanwhile, Katherine Solomon, Peter’s younger sister and a research scientist in the field of noetics (the concept that human thought can affect physical matter), finds herself in danger from a mysterious being known as Mal’akh. The Solomon family has been beset by tragedy for years: Katherine’s mother died in her arms, and her nephew met his fate in a foreign prison, and now this new threat has appeared. Mal’akh has grotesquely enhanced his body through the use of steroids and human growth hormones, and every inch of his skin except the crown of his head is tattooed. Having kidnapped Peter and thus acquired the use of his cell phone, Mal’akh has been able not only to lure Langdon to Washington but also to arrange a private meeting with Katherine at her lab in an isolated corner of the Smithsonian Museum Support Center.
Posing as Peter’s psychiatrist, Mal’akh first kills Katherine’s lab assistant Trish Dunne by drowning her in a tank containing a preserved giant squid. Katherine faces a similar threat in the absolute darkness that engulfs the entryway, or pod, to her lab. Through a combination of cleverness and luck, Katherine manages to escape from the pod. While Mal’akh is not able to kill her as he planned, she is horrified to realize that he has carried out the second part of his mission, as a massive explosion destroys her lab and all of her research contained therein.
Katherine meets Langdon and Bellamy at the Library of Congress reading room, where the two men have been trying to decipher the pyramid. None of them really knows anyone else, so they do not know who can be trusted. Everyone seems to have a secret agenda, and neither Robert nor Katherine knows who may be working for which side in this complex drama of conspiracies. Before long, they find themselves on the runfirst on foot, then via taxi, subway, car, and helicopterin a race to escape Sato’s forces, which are led by CIA operative Turner Simkins. They must decode the mysterious symbols on the pyramid and save Peter’s life, while evading the predatory Mal’akh, who will put more lives in danger before the evening is over.
The Lost Symbol is classically plotted, taking place during the course of a single evening (with flashbacks providing necessary background detail). Nearly every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, large or small, making the novel a definite “page-turner.” Brown proves once again to be an expert storyteller, as over and over readers are forced to ask themselves how the characters are going to escape from their present situation. One major character even seems clearly to die before readers’ eyesonly to be resurrected in an infuriatingly logical way.
On the other hand, Brown’s weaknesses as a writer are also apparent. Too often, crises are resolved by withholding information from readers; the occasional deus ex machina makes an appearance. Moreover, while it is fine that the novel has a philosophical angle to it, its philosophy sometimes threatens to bring the plot to a standstill. One character in particular, the Reverend Colin Galloway, dean of Washington National Cathedral, seems less like a fully formed character and more like a spokesperson for a particular religious viewpoint. Occasionally, the prose style can be a bit melodramatic (“When Katherine Solomon finally saw the massive bronze doors of the library swing open before her, she felt as if an emotional floodgate had burst. All the fear and confusion she had bottled up tonight came pouring through.”) Then, too, Brown can fall into the trap of telling as opposed to showing, particularly when one character is conveying established information to another.
There is no doubt, however, that Brown can write a masterful thriller. The scene in which Katherine is stalked by Mal’akh in absolute darkness, his distinctive scent making him seem to be everywhere at once, is positively terrifying. Mal’akh himself is a fascinating yet horrifying creation. Obsessed with the Ancient Mysteries and a hatred for Peter Solomon, his true nature and the secrets of his past are only gradually revealed. Bellamy and Katherine Solomon’s discovery of Mal’akh’s true identity generates one of the most shocking revelations in the story and should catch even the wariest readers off guard. Langdon, meanwhile, has a reputationestablished in Brown’s previous novelsfor deciphering, decoding, and decrypting all sorts of codes, symbols, and systems of communication, and there is plenty of that for him to do here. Once he and Katherine begin working together, their combined knowledge of symbology and science enables them to make further progress in solving the puzzles of the pyramid. What they ultimately discover is that advanced science and magic are not so far apart after all.
At the center of the novel is the order of the Freemasons. Brown scandalized the Catholic Church with The Da Vinci Code, and, prior to its publication, it appeared that The Lost Symbol (initially titled The Solomon Key) would draw the same type of reactions from the Masonic world. The novel is steeped in the mysteries of Masonic lore, from initiation rites to a description of a Masonic Chamber of Reflection deep beneath the U.S. Capitol. Peter Solomon and Bellamy are thirty-third-degree Masons, as is the villainous Mal’akh, and the plot of the novel centers on Mal’akh’s belief that there is a secret spiral staircase deep beneath the earth somewhere in Washington, D.C., that leads to the most secret of Masonic mysteries. It is easy to understand the Masons awaiting the publication of such a novel with some anxiety.
Actually, though, Brown presents the Masons in a rather positive light. Langdon praises them for working together in harmony, while differences among religious and political beliefs are causing strife throughout the world. He considers Masons to be men of honor and integrity and finds beauty and meaning in their rituals and symbols. In fact, the way Masons, particularly prominent ones, might be viewed should a secretly recorded video of their activities be made available to the media becomes a key plot point of the book.
The novel’s characterization is appropriate for its genre. It is not deep or profound, but it serves to create characters whom readers can identify with, such as Robert and Katherine; fear, such as Sato and Mal’akh; or appreciate, such as Galloway and Bellamy. Readers never get true depth from these characters; it is more as though they are there to serve a function in the winding, convoluted plot, with no need to explore any deeper. The character around whom the plot revolves, Peter Solomon, is kept offstage for most of the book, appearing (aside from flashbacks) only at the novel’s climax. Moreover, the novel’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, remains passive throughout much of the noveldoing what others tell him to do, evading capture, hiding in stillness, and allowing himself to be guided rather than putting his own plots into action. It is only when he begins to solve the hidden meaning of the Masonic pyramidwith the help of Dean Galloway and Katherinethat he comes into his own as a man of action.
It is important to note that the novel is a combination of fact and fiction. There is no Department of Symbology at Harvard, or anywhere else, because such a discipline does not exist. On the other hand, the famous architecture of the nation’s capital is described in painstakingly researched detail. Brown’s characters are fictional, but it is his genius to blend the factual and the imaginary so that they are intertwined as though they were one.
Following in the tradition of The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol is a thoroughly researched, fact-filled novel that is not just a thriller but also a lesson in the history, art, and architecture of Washington, D.C. In a flashback, Langdon asks his students why they would want to tour Europe when so much beauty, history, and grandeur is to be found right in their nation’s capital. This novel plays off that theme, with the Capitol Rotunda, the Library of Congress, and the Washington Monument, among other historic sites, serving as backdrops for many of the novel’s key scenes. Brown deftly works art and sculpture into the plot of the story at strategic points as well. It is only in the final chapters of the book that Brown’s technique might seem anticlimactic to some readers. Others will find themselves enthralled throughout.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55
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