Dan Brown's Waxy Substance
Advice to aspiring writers: Read Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol for two reasons. First, read in order to get an idea of how to write in compelling rhythms that move the reader along at an eager pace. Second, read in order to experience an example of the disaster that can happen when an author fails to deliver on the promises made repeatedly throughout the book to the reader.
I enjoyed reading The Lost Symbol until the final fifth of the story, when Dan Brown’s ideas began to unravel into disappointing circular babble. (I would warn that I’m about to spoil the plot, but the plot is rotten already. Avert your eyes now, if you like your garbage fresh.)
The structure of the book depends upon a shocking secret that could destroy the world as we know it – a super nasty threat to national security that makes the tortured murder of a prominent and wealthy citizen pale by comparison. So, what’s the secret? It’s that some powerful people are Masons, and that Masons do silly rituals with a lot of posturing with weird props. That’s no secret. It’s no threat to national security. It’s not shocking.
The plot also depends upon the idea that the Masons are withholding another great secret so powerful that it could create the destruction of the world if the information fell into the wrong hands. And, what’s that great secret? It’s that, supposedly, in one of the stones that makes up the Washington Monument, someone long ago hid a copy of the Christian Bible that, if found… would be just another copy of the Christian Bible.
Why would that Christian Bible create the destruction of the world? Uh, because the Bible is a code for, uh, a general sort of New Age philosophy that the main character already knew about and described almost as soon as The Lost Symbol began.
No great secret. No larger threat. No revelations. All this book has for suspense is one lone crazy person who has become crazy just because he was born eeeevil and loves being eeeeevil and worshipping the dark side. Yes, the moral world of The Lost Symbol is about as complicated as a G.I. Joe Cartoon, where you know the bad guys because they look mean and hiss when they talk.
The real head-smacker of The Lost Symbol comes from Dan Brown’s embrace of noetic science, which is described in the book as a new kind of scientific research that proves through rigorous experimentation that the human mind has the power to shape reality in powerful, measurable ways, just through pure thought. Of course, none of the heroes can merely will their way to freedom when they’re captured tied up, so the noetic claims start to look empty pretty soon. The power of mind over matter doesn’t seem to work when anything serious is on the line. Still, Dan Brown has the power to, in a work of fiction, simply assert that there have been scientific experiments proving beyond any doubt that faith healers really heal people, and that prayer actually works, and that the human soul has a physical weight… even though in the real world, such hypotheses have never withstood serious scientific examination.
The Lost Symbol is just a work of fiction, I know. Yet, Dan Brown claims that it isn’t. In a preface to the book, he claims, “All rituals, science, artwork and monuments in this novel are real.” If you play that kind of Oliver Stone game of claiming that your work of fiction describes a non-fiction reality, you’re putting your novel on a level where it deserves serious critical examination. Given that Dan Brown purports to be describing actual scientific experiments that prove psychic powers are real, it’s important that we critically examine his claims – giving it a kind of review that never happens with the scientific experiments in the book.
One of my favorite descriptions of the fictional noetic science in The Lost Symbol comes from Katherine – a the character who conducts experiments in noetic science in a chamber that is supposed to be specially isolated from all outside sources of energy, yet also has great cell phone reception and Internet access. Katherine tells the main character, Robert Langdon,
“Perhaps you’ve heard… about the brain scans taken of yogis while they meditate? The human brain, in advanced states of focus, will physically create a waxlike substance from the pineal gland. This brain secretion is unlike anything else in the body. It has an incredible healing effect, can literally regenerate cells, and may be one of the reasons yogis live so long. This is real science, Robert. This substance has inconceivable properties and can be created only by a mind that has been highly tuned to a deeply focused state.”
Think for a second. The pineal gland is inside the brain. How on earth would the real scientists, doing real science, obtain that substance in order to determine its properties? They’d have to isolate it right when it was being produced, in order to know what sort of mental state it was associated with. So, would these real scientific experiments conduct an instant dissection of the heads of the yogis in order to get at that waxy substance? The idea that any such substance with the characteristics described could be scientifically confirmed is absurd.
That’s The Lost Symbol all over. It’s written in a compelling style, unless you stop to think about it for more than a second or two. If you’re going to read this book, do it fast, and just forget about reality…
… and all you aspiring writers out there can then go out and work on a new set of novels that have the great rhythm of Dan Brown’s writing, without his sloppy thinking and empty promises.