It has become rather fashionable to beat up on poor Dan Brown. I'm not sure if it's because he's sold a gabillion books, or because his last two bestsellers spawned two cinematic abortions featuring a fleshy Tom Hanks ham-handedly directed by Ron Howard. Or, maybe we like to beat up on ol' Dan for the same reason we now all hate Titanic. We lost our collective mind over it, said it was the greatest thing ever, and now, as we wake from the pop culture hangover, we regret out enthusiasm deeply and strike out at the source of our embarrassment. It's cool, it happens. But for this, should we malign a writer? Is Dan Brown really that bad?
Thanks to the generous folks at Doubleday, I was offered an opportunity to find out. Arriving home last Tuesday, I found a promo copy of Brown's latest - The Lost Symbol - waiting in my mailbox. And you know what? It isn't bad. It's actually rather good.
Let's be clear. The Lost Symbol isn't great literature, and Brown is no prose stylist. Which is fine, really. Books, like most things, don't need to be brilliant to be good. If they did, then we would be reading the same seven books over and over again forever (I'll leave it to you to decide what those seven books would be). No, Brown won't be winning any literary awards. But I will say this: he is probably one of the most technically proficient thriller writers, ever. He structures his books like rocket fuel. You strap yourself in and enjoy the ride, even if you don't end up anywhere particularly new or innovative.
In The Lost Symbol, Brown makes a scattered attempt to put forth a book of ideas. This project is somewhat unsuccessful, and the most cringe-worthy moments in the book are those where Brown is at his most earnest. But before it becomes too overpowering, you're back to the interesting bits in the story. Like most of his novels, Brown's plot is ridiculous and yet somehow thoroughly compelling. And this time around, he has come up easily with his best villain. You think the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code was freaky? Wait until you get a load of this guy.
Brown has a strange way of making his books' shortcomings work for him. I didn't care that I figured out the major plot twist seventy pages in. Or that his "factual content" is factual in the way that the Obama birthers are a "legitimate interest group". Or that his epilogue was totally unnecessary. I enjoyed reading The Lost Symbol. It was fun, just like all of his other books. I get enough high-minded and ironic media. This type of thing is like having pancakes for dinner- quick, charming and full of empty-yet-satisfying calories.
And you know what? Dan Brown doesn't really care if you beat up on him. He'll just console himself WITH HIS GIANT PILES OF MONEY. We should all be such terrible writers.