Tuesday, 7 September 2010

A Rough Guide to Washington D.C.

I believe that there’s a generation of middle-aged westerners who, at an impressionable age in 1969, watched Where Are You, Scooby Doo? and for whom Mystery Incorporated shone a beacon of scepticism. The team's reductive approach to problem solving was Holmesian (they just took LSD instead of cocaine), and as such their mind-bending adventures dismissed the ridiculous, and promoted reality. Although the same age as me, the twenty-first century’s most popular problem solver, Robert Langdon, it seems, may have had parents who didn’t allow him to watch silly cartoons.

My heroes (Hanna-Barbera/Warner Bros)
If you’ve read Dan Brown’s previous Langdon novels, then his latest blockbuster, The Lost Symbol, will feel like a breath of stale air. Once again, symbol-bore Langdon leads from behind, wandering around historical monuments solving ambiguous clues worthy of 3-2-1’s Dusty Bin, and partnering the female relative of a dead or dying pillar of the community while in opposition to both a fanatic with huge physical prowess, and an institution with bottomless resources, all in the interests of bringing together the mystical and scientific realms.

A symbologist ahead of his time (Yorkshire TV)
Having boosted tourism figures in Rome and Paris, Brown has responded to the global downturn by keeping the tourists’ dollar within the United States. Either that, or Langdon has used up his air miles in the previous novels. In fact, he may not even be able to spare shoe leather because he spends the first one-third of the book in the Capitol Building, which, according to the novel,

... stands regally at the eastern end of the National Mall, on a raised plateau that city designer Pierre L'Enfant described as "a pedestal waiting for a monument." The Capitol's massive footprint measures more tnan 750 feet in length 350 feet deep. Housing more than sixteen acres of floorspace, it contains an astonishing 541 rooms. The neoclassical architecture is meticulously designed to echo the grandeur of Ancient Rome, whose ideals were the inspiration for America's founders in establishing the laws and culture of the new republic.

Each time Langdon relocates to another historical (in the American sense) landmark, Brown prefaces that particular chapter with similarly edificating (spellchecker wants to place defacating here) descriptions, each sounding like a snippet from a Washington DC tourist brochure. Is it possible that Brown is risking another plagiarism lawsuit – this time from copywriters?

Langdon is again paired off with the crème de la crème of the scientific community. Rather than a biophysicist whose fish have outmanoeuvred Einsteinian physics, or a cryptologist with a 260 miles-per-gallon SmartCar, we are introduced to pioneer of Noetic Sciences, Katherine Solomon. A little Internet research soon raises suspicions that the ‘Science’ part of Noetic Sciences is on a par with the ‘Scien’ root of Scientology.

Historical, apparently (allposters.com)

Katherine is the sister of mega-Mason Peter Solomon, whose high-ranking, public servant brothers are concerned that should their bonkers rituals be placed on YouTube, then the public might think they are-- well, bonkers. Why one would consider political leaders rolling up their trouser legs, drinking ‘blood’ from a skull, and talking mystical gibberish as less than normal is beyond ‘sceptic’ Langdon – after all, it’s just harmless fun.

Brown portrays Langdon as a sceptic, but I find that his scepticism is the open-minded type whereby, as described by Richard Dawkins, Langdon’s mind is so open that his brain has dropped out. He has no problem with Masonic rituals, California-crazy science or pyramids with mystical powers to transform.

Langdon’s Brown-vaunted intellect and symbological prowess are about as well formed as his scepticism. Early in the story Langdon is foxed by the Roman numerals IIIX tattooed on the amputated hand of Peter Solomon. It should be possible to show that, statistically, every person on the planet except Dan Brown thinks that upside-down Roman numerals are not a world-class puzzle. It took Langdon several chapters to solve this, and the solution came by accident rather than from a churning of the great man’s huge cranial computations.

No sweat, Langdon can't read it

Katherine Solomon’s brain must have become so full of Noetic nonsense that she fails to notice for three whole years that a ninety-second stumble in the dark, to and from her secret laboratory, could have been easily eliminated by technology known about for thousands of years: the torch. Except that it would have meant rearranging Brown’s unimaginative effort to produce drama by having a beast of a man chase a poor damsel in a dark room.

All of Brown’s plot-driven characters are one-dimensional, except for Langdon himself who, lacking even that, should be nicknamed the human singularity, and the antagonist, Moloch, the inhuman monster of the story, whose failings and disappointments in life give the novel its only human insights. Each character speaks with a banality that Spock would find overly formal, and any variations their speech patterns are so indiscernible that in dialogue heavy text, it helps to annotate the pages script-fashion.

The ultra-omniscient third person narration drifts from person to person, sometimes several times within a few paragraphs. Even the innermost thoughts of minor characters are splashed about like Brut 33, so that the reader feels like one of Katherine’s ‘scientifically-proven’ psychics who are unable to filter out mental chatter. This omniscience occasionally naps, like when events ‘apparently’ happen or are due ‘possibly’ to some reason or other that the character can’t be bothered to recall. Then there are the blocks of Brown’s preachy narrative voice that vacillates between mild scepticism and a wish for the ‘at-one-ment’ of mysticism and science.

SJG, 'Non-overlapping magisteria' (stephejaygould.org)

Brown’s already low metaphor/simile count drops like a symbologist with a handkerchief for a parachute for this novel. Though with Brown’s likening of the Washington Monument to a ‘grand ship’s mast’ being one of the few, perhaps this is a good thing. The inability to name a ‘grand ship’ shows Brown’s interest in the historical is not quite as strong as that implied in his protagonist, though the make, model and serial code of every aircraft, elevator and gadget is brandished with pride (or advertising revenue).

The chapter lengths are arbitrary, bordering on random. Some last almost a page, while a few reach double figures. This may be an endeavour to inject pace into the geographically static story, but diving from one person’s flashback to another’s has the opposite effect. These constant digressions are merely clumsy attempts either to give a character back story, or to bolster a lame eureka moment. This invites the hypothesis that if the characters had all just sat around talking about their personal histories at the beginning, then events may have worked out by themselves, thus avoiding the need for the novel. On the rare occasion that the action is in the present, the story rattles along like a good old pulp page-turner.

Who parked HMS Victory on the White House lawn? (visitingdc.com)

While the mystery of how Brown has sold more than eighty million books may seem like material for nothing less than a Robert Langdon adventure, the answer pleasingly simple. He has cleverly combined three of the best-selling books of all time: the Bible, for its mysticism; the Guinness Book of Records, for its facts (and remember, each Langdon novel starts with the word ‘facts’); and Sudoku (and other books like it), for its puzzles. Brown has added a dash of the swarming belief in conspiracy theories for good measure.

For all Brown’s self-reported liberal tendencies, his novels feel as if they would be more at home on the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ shelf, or wherever it is bookshops stock the ravings of Erik von Daniken, Graeme Hancock and David Icke. If, as in speculative fiction, we accept Langdon’s universe as a weird perversion of our own, then I invoke assistance from the Scooby-Doo universe, whereby a group of meddling kids will come along and unmask Dan Brown - as an algorithm. Like the book’s theme, I live in hope.

P.S. There really is a hidden message in this blog. A hardback copy of The Lost Symbol (only once read) to the first person to post the correct answer.

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