The new Dan Brown and faux Robert Ludlum sell only by feeding your paranoia, argues Kalpish Ratna
AH, The Lost Symbol! You don’t really want to hear from me if it’s bad or good, you’re going to read it anyway. As this goes to press, it has sold another million copies, secure in the #1 bestseller slot, unthreatened by such mild tremors as the Booker, the Nobel, or even Chetan Bhagat.
The Da Vinci Code was fun, Angels and Demons was vicious, The Lost Symbol is plain dull.
Let me do a quick-and-painless: the writing’s atrocious, the pace detumescent, and the villain a tattooed golem who brews… tea. Robert Langdon, now even more wooden than Tom Hanks, has to be prodded awake every tenth page or so for his fix of Symbology. The heroine is a total drip. The apéritif is a human skull brimming with crimson — sorry it’s just wine — and there’s a severed limb for entrée, but where, o where, is the action? There’s no mystery, no sex, no psychology, the plot sucks and it’s as Establishment as hell.
So what are two million readers doing? Why does the darn book sell?
Also on my desk, helping me find the answer, is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Deception by… Eric Van Lustbader. Which says it all. Not the original Ludlum (1927-2001, RIP). Real Ludlum’s pure fight-or-flight adrenaline, breathless with paranoia, the prose poised nicely between rant and pant. The first few pages have the reader skewered on its iron hook. The money’s huge, the girl dead or worse, and the hero’s either sick of life, or can’t remember remember his name. What ilk of rat will abandon a book now?
And then came the film. After Matt Damon’s perceptive humanisation of Jason Bourne, there was space for a dozen more eggs in that basket. The Bourne Deception is just a postmortem wank on that golden goose.
Again — why does the darn book sell? This one’s easy! Broke your mother’s heart, dumped your girl, robbed a bank, killed a man? I don’t remember. Great! You can start all over again. Nothing’s quite as sexy as amnesia.
Dan Brown’s oeuvre is more complex. It’s literature verso, the dark side of the word, the paradox of print. A book is a space to be alone in. That’s two million people, each alone within the covers of the same book, in a glut of absolute bliss.
What are they gorging on? Paranoia. Delusions, not so much of grandeur, as of privilege. The book validates a human need for exclusivity. Through it you’re initiated into a world that’s invisible to the fools around you. You’ve found your slot among the chosen. You aren’t a Muggle any more.
From Oedipus on, the right answer to a riddle has always brought reprieve. But like the Harry Potter books, Dan Brown’s confections have an edge over Homer, because it’s all happening right down your street.
Look out of your window and get a ringside view of the Revelations now.
The Lost Symbol carries this to an entirely new level. No longer need you overdose on Renaissance art, ride the Metro to St Sulpice, hide your knees in the Vatican, or splice the Higgs boson. All you have to do is get to Washington, DC, and stare. Symbols are all around you, and High Priest Dan will whiz you up the fire escape to the oculus in the sky where, in a blinding flash, all will be revealed.
Before you open The Lost Symbol, let me warn you. On page 2 you will be given a blindfold. Dan Brown calls it the velvet hoodwink. The guy sure knows what he’s talking about.